What Is the Shunet el-Zebib? Part One / by Wendy Doyon

By Matthew Douglas Adams & Wendy Doyon / Shunet el-Zebib 2019.1 © Abydos Archaeology

The Shunet el-Zebib by Richard Barnes © North Abydos Expedition 2000

The Shunet el-Zebib by Richard Barnes © North Abydos Expedition 2000

This is the first installment in a series covering the history of exploration at the Second Dynasty cultic enclosure of King Khasekhemwy (c. 2700 BCE) in North Abydos, known today as the Shunet el-Zebib, or simply as the Shuneh. The excavation and architectural conservation of the Shuneh has, since 1986, been a central component of the Expedition's exploration of the early royal monuments of Dynasties 1 and 2 at Abydos. Of the eleven royal enclosures so far known to have been built by Egypt’s first kings in North Abydos, the Shunet el-Zebib is the only one still standing. These massive enclosures, going all the way back to Narmer around 3,000 BCE, are the reason for the existence of the ancient necropolis, and the key to unlocking its history. What exactly were these Early Dynastic enclosures, and more importantly, what can they tell us about Egyptian society, religion, economy, and culture during its dramatic emergence from prehistory into history?

Who Discovered the Shunet el-Zebib?

In an important sense, the Shuneh was never lost, having stood for much of its 5,000-year history as the most visible monument to survive from ancient Abydos, while the great temples of Seti I and Ramses II gradually filled up with sand and lay mostly buried until the 19th Century. Not only did the Shuneh survive, it also, like Osiris himself, lived a powerful afterlife. It reflected changing ideas of sacredness over time, while continuing to serve as a reminder of Abydos as pharaonic Egypt's point of origin (Adams, 2019). In this sense, it is one of archaeology's rarest species­ — that one-in-a-million kind of artifact, which illustrates something fundamental about both continuity and change in human history.

Fig. 1. Second Dynasty cult enclosure of King Khasekhemwy (c. 2700 BCE) — the Shunet el-Zebib, looking north at sunset, 1988. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

Fig. 1. Second Dynasty cult enclosure of King Khasekhemwy (c. 2700 BCE) — the Shunet el-Zebib, looking north at sunset, 1988. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

But there is another sense in which something did get lost along the way. Already by the Middle Kingdom around 2,000 BCE, its original purpose as the cult place of King Khasekhemwy had likely been forgotten. Though many had wondered speculatively about this mysterious structure, archaeologists would not begin piecing its history back together until the middle of the 19th Century, and it would take another hundred-plus years to begin the first truly systematic, research-driven investigation of the monument in 1986 (O'Connor, 2009). This photo (Fig. 1), taken by the Expedition in 1988, marks the rediscovery of the Shunet el-Zebib in its original historical context — a slow, precise, and thrilling process in which we've discovered a lot else along the way.

Fig. 2. Excavations inside the Shuneh’s north gateway in 1988. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

Fig. 2. Excavations inside the Shuneh’s north gateway in 1988. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

Fig. 3. Excavation detail inside the Shunet el-Zebib, showing ibis burial jars and burial pits. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

Fig. 3. Excavation detail inside the Shunet el-Zebib, showing ibis burial jars and burial pits. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

Among the first discoveries to emerge during the first two seasons of excavation at the Shunet el-Zebib, in 1986 and 1988, was evidence of its early afterlife as a sacred animal necropolis after the end of the New Kingdom c. 1,000 BCE (Figs. 2,3). Abydos as a whole is home to many of ancient Egypt’s largest animal cemeteries, with votive zones containing vast numbers of mummified dogs, hawks, ibises, cats, mongoose, and even shrews as votive offerings to the gods, spanning the entire first millennium BCE (Ikram, 2007). The first well-documented excavation of a sacred ibis cemetery at Abydos was by British archaeologist and naturalist W.L.S. Loat (Peet & Loat, 1913). Working on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1912-13, he excavated nearly one hundred jars in the Middle Cemetery, each one containing as many as 94 animal mummies (Fig. 4). Since then hundreds upon hundreds more ibis mummies (Threskiornis aethiopicus) have been discovered at several areas of the site, attesting to a major shift in Egyptian religious practice, which emphasized animal cults, from the Third Intermediate Period into Roman times.

Fig. 4. Excavation of ibis burials in the Middle Cemetery at Abydos during W.L.S. Loat’s excavations with T.E. Peet in 1912-13. Photo courtesy of the  Egypt Exploration Society

Fig. 4. Excavation of ibis burials in the Middle Cemetery at Abydos during W.L.S. Loat’s excavations with T.E. Peet in 1912-13. Photo courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

In 1986, when archaeologist David O'Connor, then co-director of the Penn-Yale Expedition, turned his attention to the remains of the early royal monuments of Dynasties 1 and 2 at Abydos, the Shunet el-Zebib was an obvious focus, being the only enclosure still standing on the landscape. O'Connor's team began excavating inside the monument to investigate what Dynasty 2 features may have survived, and what they might reveal about the original use of the monument. While digging just inside the north gateway and in the western half of the interior in 1986 and again in 1988, scores of ibis burials and even ibis eggs were found, mostly inside large pottery vessels buried in large pits that were dug into the interior of the Shuneh (Figs. 5-9). Evidence of the large-scale reuse of the Shuneh as a sacred animal necropolis in the first millennium BCE had already been encountered by archaeologists Auguste Mariette and Edward Ayrton, but the full extent and real nature of this phase of activity was not well understood.

Fig. 5. Large pottery vessels containing ibis burials in situ, 1988. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

Fig. 5. Large pottery vessels containing ibis burials in situ, 1988. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

Fig. 6. Examples of excavated ibis eggs from W.L.S. Loat’s excavations in the early 20th Century. Photo courtesy of the  Egypt Exploration Society

Fig. 6. Examples of excavated ibis eggs from W.L.S. Loat’s excavations in the early 20th Century. Photo courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

Fig. 7. Examples of excavated pottery vessels containing ibis burials from W.L.S. Loat’s excavations in the early 20th Century. Photo courtesy of the  Egypt Exploration Society

Fig. 7. Examples of excavated pottery vessels containing ibis burials from W.L.S. Loat’s excavations in the early 20th Century. Photo courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

Fig. 8. Excavation of ibis burials inside the Shunet el-Zebib during the 1988 season. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

Fig. 8. Excavation of ibis burials inside the Shunet el-Zebib during the 1988 season. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

These first two seasons of excavation at the Shuneh not only illustrated perfectly the monument's sacredness through time — a stratigraphy of religious change and continuity in antiquity — but also marked the beginning of a new era of discovery and large-scale, controlled exploration of this once mysterious monument's entire history as a most ancient survivor (Fig. 10).

Fig. 9. Objects in situ are larger than they appear! Excavated pottery vessels containing ibis burials at Abydos can measure up to 80cm high. Photo: Matthew Adams © North Abydos Expedition 1988

Fig. 9. Objects in situ are larger than they appear! Excavated pottery vessels containing ibis burials at Abydos can measure up to 80cm high. Photo: Matthew Adams © North Abydos Expedition 1988

Fig. 10. The landscape of North Abydos has changed profoundly, yet stayed the same for thousands of years. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

Fig. 10. The landscape of North Abydos has changed profoundly, yet stayed the same for thousands of years. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum

References Cited

Adams, Matthew Douglas. “The Origins of Sacredness at Abydos.” In Abydos: The Sacred Land at the Western Horizon, edited by I. Regulski. British Museum Publications on Egypt and Sudan, 8. Leuven: Peeters, 2019, in press.

Ikram, Salima. "Animals in the Ritual Landscape at Abydos: A Synopsis." In The Archaeology and Art of Ancient Egypt: Essays in Honor of David B. O'Connor, vol. 1, edited by Z. Hawass and J. Richards, pp. 417-432. Cairo: Conseil Suprême des Antiquités de l'Égypte, 2007.

O'Connor, David. Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris. London: Thames and Hudson, 2009.

Peet, T. E. and W.L.S. Loat. The Cemeteries of Abydos, Part III—1912-1913. London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1913.