What’s Happening Now at Abydos & Why Is It Amazing? / by Wendy Doyon

By Wendy Doyon / Field Diary 2019.1 © Abydos Archaeology

Fig. 1. Tools of the Trade. Photo: Wendy Doyon / North Abydos Expedition © 2019

Fig. 1. Tools of the Trade. Photo: Wendy Doyon / North Abydos Expedition © 2019

It’s late winter in Egypt, and that means a new field season is underway at North Abydos — and this is a big one! This season we’re opening a new excavation at the Temple of Osiris in Kom el-Sultan; returning to our excavations and architectural preservation work at the Shunet el-Zebib, the Second Dynasty royal cult enclosure of King Khasekhemwy; and completing a condition assessment in preparation for a new conservation program at the “Portal” Temple — a small temple built by Ramses II along the Osiris festival processional route. All of this new fieldwork, plus a whole lot of ongoing initiatives, are keeping our excavation, collections, conservation, survey, and photography teams very busy, and life at the Abydos field house humming along. Just two weeks into the new season, and already around 25 objects a day are making their way from the excavations at the Shunet el-Zebib and the Temple of Osiris to our on-site collections and conservation labs to be registered, treated, and housed for future analysis. Read on for all the backdirt and follow us into the field @digabydos!

Fig. 2. King Khasekhemwy’s Second Dynasty cultic enclosure (c. 2650 BCE), the Shunet el-Zebib at the Abydos North Cemetery. Photo: Greg Maka / North Abydos Expedition © 2012

Fig. 2. King Khasekhemwy’s Second Dynasty cultic enclosure (c. 2650 BCE), the Shunet el-Zebib at the Abydos North Cemetery. Photo: Greg Maka / North Abydos Expedition © 2012

Fig. 3. Painted coffin of the late Ramesside or Third Intermediate Period found just outside the east corner gateway of the Shunet el-Zebib earlier this week. This elaborate burial is exceptional for the quality of its painted decoration, but even more for having survived at all — the wood of the original coffin has been completely devoured by insects, leaving behind only the extremely fragile painted surface of a once extraordinarily fine coffin to be documented, admired, and preserved. Photo: Ayman Damarany / North Abydos Expedition © 2019

Fig. 3. Painted coffin of the late Ramesside or Third Intermediate Period found just outside the east corner gateway of the Shunet el-Zebib earlier this week. This elaborate burial is exceptional for the quality of its painted decoration, but even more for having survived at all — the wood of the original coffin has been completely devoured by insects, leaving behind only the extremely fragile painted surface of a once extraordinarily fine coffin to be documented, admired, and preserved. Photo: Ayman Damarany / North Abydos Expedition © 2019

Fig. 4. Reis Ibrahim Mohamed ‘Ali and Anthony Crosby at the Shunet el-Zebib. Photo: Matthew Adams / North Abydos Expedition © 2018

Fig. 4. Reis Ibrahim Mohamed ‘Ali and Anthony Crosby at the Shunet el-Zebib. Photo: Matthew Adams / North Abydos Expedition © 2018

@ The Shunet el-Zebib

Before there were pyramids, before there were temples, before there was stone-built architecture anywhere in Egypt, there was the Shunet el-Zebib (Fig. 2). King Khasekhemwy’s Second Dynasty monumental cultic enclosure has dominated the landscape at Abydos for nearly 5,000 years and today stands as one of the oldest surviving mud brick structures in the world, and the sole surviving example of Egypt’s first great royal building tradition. The long-term excavation and architectural conservation of the Shunet el-Zebib have anchored the Expedition’s archaeological program at North Abydos going on two decades. A significant component of our research is investigating evidence for the original use of the monument in the Second Dynasty (c. 2650 BCE), but equally important have been the excavation and documentation of subsequent archaeological phases in the cultural re-use of the Shuneh — one of Egypt’s most potent symbols of change and continuity through time. We are especially excited to be returning to work at the Shunet el-Zebib this season, where we’re excavating outside the east corner gateway of the monument as part of the comprehensive documentation of this area prior to architectural stabilization (Fig. 3). But that’s not all! We are also continuing the conservation of the north and south gateways this year, in collaboration with Preservation Architect Anthony Crosby (Fig. 4). The deep antiquity of the Shunet el-Zebib and the five millennia of stories it holds have been driving forces of the Expedition since 2001, the same year we began working with Tony to develop a comprehensive architectural documentation and conservation program at the Shuneh. You can read more about our long-term efforts to preserve this extraordinary monument here & here. Our last season of excavation and conservation at the Shuneh was in 2012, and being able to pick up where we left off seven years ago gives this season an extra air of excitement and anticipation.

Fig. 5. Panoramic view of the site of the once massive pylon of the Temple of Osiris, looking southwest from Beni Mansour. Photo: Ayman Damarany / North Abydos Expedition © 2019

Fig. 5. Panoramic view of the site of the once massive pylon of the Temple of Osiris, looking southwest from Beni Mansour. Photo: Ayman Damarany / North Abydos Expedition © 2019

Fig. 6. A finely carved image of Osiris emerging from Petrie’s backdirt at the Osiris Temple pylon. Photo: Michelle Marlar / North Abydos Expedition © 2019

Fig. 6. A finely carved image of Osiris emerging from Petrie’s backdirt at the Osiris Temple pylon. Photo: Michelle Marlar / North Abydos Expedition © 2019

@ The Osiris Temple Pylon

And speaking of excitement and anticipation, it’s a big year for Osiris at Abydos! Along with the exciting launch of our new website & blog at abydos.org, we’re also over the moon about our new logo, featuring the image of Osiris, as designed by 1350 Design. For ancient Egyptians, Abydos was the mythic burial place of the god Osiris and the ancestral home of their first kings. It was Egypt’s single most sacred landscape for thousands of years — a place of pilgrimage, ritual, culture, and power, where ancient Egyptians came to participate in the rituals that established the cultural basis for eternal life. Located at the far northeastern edge of the site in Kom el-Sultan are the remains of the Temple of Osiris, one of the most important, but least understood temples in all of Egypt (Fig. 5). If you’ve ever visited the Temple of Edfu, then you can imagine what the front pylon of the Temple of Osiris looked like when it was still standing on this spot. The massive scale of the two temple pylons, each spanning about 70 meters across, was comparably impressive. British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, a major figure in the history of archaeology at Abydos, excavated here on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society at the beginning of the 20th century, leaving “spoil heaps” — mounds of backdirt — that buried two-thirds of the original remains of the Osiris Temple pylon. This season, we are excavating the spoil heaps left behind by Petrie’s earlier excavations, in order to uncover and investigate the front pylon of the temple, and to set the stage for conservation and site management at this central part of the site. We’re very happy to be working again with Egyptologist Michelle Marlar on these excavations, which are already turning out basketsful of beautiful relief fragments that were missed by Petrie (Fig. 6). Buckle up, because this is going to get really interesting!

Fig. 7. Remains of the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II in the foreground, looking southwest to the Shunet el-Zebib and Umm el-Qa‘ab beyond. Photo: Greg Maka / North Abydos Expedition © 2009

Fig. 7. Remains of the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II in the foreground, looking southwest to the Shunet el-Zebib and Umm el-Qa‘ab beyond. Photo: Greg Maka / North Abydos Expedition © 2009

Fig. 8. Penn-Yale excavations at the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II during the Expedition’s first season at Abydos in 1967. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Fig. 8. Penn-Yale excavations at the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II during the Expedition’s first season at Abydos in 1967. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Fig. 9. This colossal statue of Ramses II — which once decorated the front of the “Portal” Temple, casting its god-like eyes down on the humans below — was among the first finds of the first season of Penn-Yale excavations at Abydos in 1967. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Fig. 9. This colossal statue of Ramses II — which once decorated the front of the “Portal” Temple, casting its god-like eyes down on the humans below — was among the first finds of the first season of Penn-Yale excavations at Abydos in 1967. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum.

@ The “Portal” Temple of Ramses II

Ramses II was one of the most powerful kings in history, famously ruling Egypt for an unprecedented 66 years (c. 1279-1213 BCE). The monumental temple he built at Abydos, which still stands today alongside that of his father Seti I, is a must-see for visitors to Egypt. But did you know that he also built a smaller temple to the north, just at the point where the ancient town of Abydos opened onto the desert? (Fig. 7). This small temple of Ramses II, which Flinders Petrie called a “Portal,” was one of several modest temples that lined the processional route of the festival of Osiris — an annual event that put Abydos at the center of Egyptian cultural life beginning in the Middle Kingdom. From this spot generations of ancient pilgrims at Abydos began the Osiris festival procession each year, starting out from the edge of the desert where Ramses II built this small temple, which served as a kind of gateway to the processional route linking the Temple of Osiris to his symbolic tomb at Umm el-Qa‘ab. Ramses II’s construction of this temple positioned him at a critical location in the sacred topography of Abydos, and the new monument itself became a focal point in the ritual life of the site during the later New Kingdom. Following its participation in the Nubian Salvage Campaign of the early 1960s, the Penn-Yale Expedition, directed by Profs. David O’Connor and William Kelly Simpson, organized its first field season at Abydos in 1967, breaking ground at the “Portal” Temple (Figs. 8,9). These historic excavations gave life to a new era of archaeology at Abydos, and the half-century of fieldwork that followed until David O’Connor’s retirement in 2017 is a legacy that we are proud to carry on as the North Abydos Expedition today. Inspired by the past, while looking to the future, we’re thrilled to be returning to the site of the Expedition’s original 1967-69 excavations this year. One of our main goals this season is to fully document the architecture of the “Portal” Temple, as well as inscribed and decorated fragments at the site, in preparation for a long-term conservation program at this important monument.