Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 June 2007
Issue No. 850
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Of bricks and boats

An intact tomb brimming with fine funerary pieces has been accidentally discovered at Deir Al-Barsha in Upper Egypt, reports Nevine El-Aref

Click to view caption
Wooden statuettes found inside Henu's tomb featuring the production of bricks; a coloured figurine of the deceased in his official costume

Archaeologists from the Katholicke Universiteit Leuven working at the Middle-Kingdom (2066-1650 BC) tomb of Uky, a top government official, have discovered an intact tomb chamber, complete with funerary goods.

While removing the debris out of a rock-cut shaft found inside the chamber of Uky's tomb, the archaeologists came across a huge limestone block indicating that a major find was imminent, in line with the ancient Egyptian custom of blocking their burial chambers with such a barrier. Through a hole in the block, they could see what they described as a beautifully-carved wooden statue of a man with large, staring eyes. After only an hour the block had been removed, and the team discovered a small but intact chamber richly stuffed with well-preserved wooden objects and containing a decorated sarcophagus.

"Even though the burial took place more than 4,000 years ago, the colours on the painted objects are very fresh, and there was even no dust covering them," mission director Harco Williams said.

The tomb lies on the southern slope of the hill of Deir Al-Barsha, near the Upper Egyptian town of Minya. Here the Leuven team members are nearing the completion of the excavations they began two years ago at Uky's tomb. After clearing the debris, they are restoring and documenting the objects they have found.

Williams said the sarcophagus was blocking the whole chamber and was beautifully decorated with two lines of hieroglyphic texts running vertically along both its sides, representing a type of offering formulae addressed to the gods Anubis and Osiris. A third line on the lid reveals the name and title of the deceased, Henu, a courtier and the director of a domain, which indicates that Henu was a subordinate official in the provincial administration during the late Intermediate Period.

On the right side of the sarcophagus are two painted eyes that allow Henu's mummy to gaze out to the rising sun. Two wooden sandals were placed on top of the coffin ready for the deceased to wear in the afterlife, along with two remarkably preserved funerary statuettes portraying various scenarios of work in daily life. The first shows three working women in linen skirts grinding grain, while the second, described by Egyptologists as extremely rare, shows the production of mud bricks. The statuette features four men in the midst of their work, one of them working clay with a hoe, two carrying a bag of clay with a yoke on their shoulders, and a fourth forming a line of finished mud bricks.

Four more models were found on the eastern wall of the chamber of the sarcophagus. The largest is a statue of Henu himself, depicted in official dress, the fine details of his facial expression confirming a high level of craftsmanship. In front were two models of women in the process of brewing beer and making bread. "Such provisions were an absolute necessity in the afterlife," Williams said. Behind the large statue of Henu was a large boat model with two groups of rowers and a lotiform bow and stern. There are five rowers on each side, three standing men at the bow, and a helmsman at the stern. In order to facilitate the placement of the boat model between the east wall of the chamber and the sarcophagus, the oars had been placed between the men standing on the deck of the boat. However, continued Williams, all 10 oars were recovered and could be replaced in their original positions in the hands of the rowers.

Removal of the sarcophagus lid revealed Henu's mummy thickly wrapped in linen and enveloped in one or perhaps two shrouds.

The shape of the head suggests that there was no mummy mask, although this cannot be considered certain before the mummy is subjected to a CT-scan. Underneath the head was an inscribed wooden headrest confirming the name of the deceased.

Shortly after the outstanding discovery, the mission removed Henu's objects to the Minya museological storehouse for cleaning and documentation.

"These ancient objects are of really quite a significant quality," said Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), when he saw the objects for the first time. He added that they were delicately carved and painted, with proportions that were quite realistic. In quality, Hawass said: "They are the best of their time."

Williams describes them as realistic examples of Egyptian art, and explains that they feature unusual details, such as the dirty hands and feet of the brickmakers. Moreover, he says, brickmaking models are highly exceptional with only two other examples discovered thus far.

Although the tombs on the south side of the hill are generally considered to date from the later part of the Old Kingdom (or c 2350-2200 BC), no excavations had ever taken place there before the Leuven University team started its work. Their results in 2005 and 2006 confirm the conventional impression concerning their Old Kingdom date. However, in some of these Old Kingdom tombs a text was carved by a man called Djehutinakht, son of Teti, who was a provincial governor during the late First Intermediate Period, at about the same time when Henu was alive. He claims in these texts that the tombs of his ancestors had fallen into ruin, and that he restored them. Hitherto the team had been wondering about the significance of these "restoration texts", because apart from the text itself nothing suggested that a true restoration had ever taken place. It can now be suggested that the funerary cult in the Old Kingdom tombs had ceased by the late First Intermediate Period. Perhaps Djehutinakht added new shafts to the tombs for some members of his entourage, thus reinstating the funerary cult there. This reinstatement might be what the "restoration texts" refer to, since the original Old Kingdom owner of the tomb would also benefit from this renewed activity. If this is the right interpretation, the other tombs where Djehutinakht left behind "restoration texts" could also have had First Intermediate Period occupants.

Intact tombs of the First Intermediate Period that are as rich as Henu's burial chamber have been found only rarely, the last similar find being made more than 20 years ago. Before that, a number of similar tombs, although of a slightly later date, were discovered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The find is therefore most exceptional. Additionally, all of the objects are in perfect condition which is remarkable since they are made of wood that was first plastered and then painted.

That this burial chamber, which is located less than 2.5m below ground level, escaped the detection of tomb raiders for the past 4,000 years is probably due to a large heap of quarry debris dating from the New Kingdom that covers numerous tombs in this area. The Leuven team plans to continue its excavation in the area, which is bound to provide more valuable information about this Old Kingdom provincial necropolis.

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