Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 June 2012
Issue No. 1101
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Learning more about the Middle Kingdom

The discovery of a Middle Kingdom burial of a member of the family of the Deir Al-Barsha governor has given Egyptologists some unique information on the scenario in which the ancient Egyptians conducted their funerary rituals, writes Nevine El-Aref

Click to view caption
Belgian archaeologists cleaning the newly discovered shaft inside Ahanakht I's tomb (top); a collection of copper vases and plates used in funerary rituals

Everything began as normal at this spring's archaeological season at the Deir Al-Barsha necropolis in Minya, which lasted from March to May. As usual, teams of workmen, archaeologists and restorers were busy on all parts of the site, digging and clearing the tombs of the village nomarchs (provincial governors) and searching for artefacts or monumental remains that could tell them more about the history of this particular period of ancient Egypt.

The site of the Deir Al-Barsha necropolis in the sandy gravel desert is famous for its rock-hewn tombs dating from the Middle Kingdom. Although part of the necropolis was investigated at the beginning of the 20th century by the American archaeologist George Reisner, no plans or detailed accounts of these excavations were ever published. Time has since taken its toll of the necropolis, and it was almost totally covered by sand.

In 2002 a Belgian archaeological mission from Leuven University started a magnetic survey there in an attempt to gain some insight into the overall organisation and social stratification of the necropolis. The survey discovered several anomalies that suggested the presence of burial shafts and tombs. It also provided a record of several hundred pits dug by grave robbers.

During their routine excavation of the southwestern burial shaft in the tomb of the nomarch Ahanakht I, who was the first Middle Kingdom governor of the Hare nome or province, the Belgian excavators found they were looking at an important burial dating from the beginning of the Middle Kingdom era. It was filled with a large number of funerary objects which were still in situ, and these helped explain how the ancient Egyptians practised their funerary rituals.

The field director of the Belgian mission, Haro Willems, told Al-Ahram Weekly that although the Ahanakht I tomb had been discovered before in 1915 by Reisner, it had now been completely assessed -- especially the southwestern part of Ahanakht I's tomb where the actual burial was found. Willems explained that Reisner's diary made it clear he was under the impression that this shaft had been robbed, which was why he stopped his excavation at that point.

Willems went on to say that the recent excavations confirmed that Reisner's assessment about tomb robbing was correct, and that at the bottom of the shaft, almost six metres below ground level, archaeologists found cigarette stubs and shreds of newspaper dating from the early 20th century. Some important reliefs from the decoration of the tomb were also found. There were also numerous remains of tomb equipment, but it was not clear whether these came from this tomb or from somewhere else entirely, since the pieces were much damaged. Moreover, he said, the burial chamber was filled to the roof with rocks, something that can only be explained by assuming that the robbers deliberately threw these into the chamber. Much of the wooden tomb equipment was unfortunately crushed in the process. "Yet many funerary gifts were not noticed by the tomb robbers," Willems said.

Willems said excavations have revealed that the tomb was robbed twice; the first time may have been in antiquity, when robbers were more interested in precious materials such as the numerous pieces of gold leaf that once covered the coffins and probably other objects. The tomb was then left open, and over the span of time rainwater seems to have drained into the chamber. The water then mingled with the lime dust in the tomb' shaft, and once dried it left behind a thick lime crust which the looters in the late 19th century thought to be the floor of the tomb. These looters caused enormous damage to the coffins and other wooden objects that had rotted and became infected with fungi through contact with moisture. It seems, however, that the lime crust kept other objects safely hidden until the Belgian mission excavated the shaft and unearthed a well-preserved funerary collection in its original position.

The objects the mission found include dozens of alabaster model vessels, offering tables and head rests as well as faience libation vases and a variety of copper vases, plates and model offering tables. There were also some unique ritual objects, hitherto known only from ancient depictions.

"It is for the first time in more than a century that a relatively well preserved burial of this kind has been found," Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim said. He went on to explain that, although the burial was robbed at least twice in antiquity and had suffered extensive damage since, a large part of the funerary collection was found well preserved at its original position.

Willems told the Weekly that the position of the funerary items enabled Egyptologists to envision how ancient Egyptians practised their religious rituals in detail. He went on to say that the ancient Egyptians might first have installed the sarcophagus in the burial chamber, and then begun the purification ritual and offering processes.

"The latter ritual is well known from texts and depictions, but it is the first time that it can be shown that such a ritual was carried out underground inside the burial chamber," Willems said.

Mohamed Ismail, the director of Foreign Missions Affairs at the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), said the coffin discovered in the burial was in poor condition, yet early studies carried out by the Belgian mission revealed that the coffin remains were inscribed with texts showing that it was the burial of a man called Djehutinakht. Ismail said this was important because the inscriptions in the Ahanakht I tomb also mentioned his father, who was named Djehutinakht. This man had an offering place in the tomb, which suggests that Ahanakht I buried his father in his own tomb.

"Djehutinakht is known to have been the last nomarch of the Hare Nome of the First Intermediate Period. It can now be concluded that this person was buried here," Ismail said.

The coffin is inscribed with a series of Coffin Texts, which are among the most important religious texts of the Middle Kingdom and form a link between the royal Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom and the famous Book of the Dead of the New Kingdom.

Willems pointed out that it was already known that the Middle Kingdom tradition of the Coffin Texts originated in Deir Al-Barsha, with Ahanakht thus far being the first owner of a coffin decorated with these inscriptions. The badly preserved coffin of Djehutinakht adds an important chapter to the history of the Coffin Texts: "it may be the earliest representative of the Middle Kingdom," Willems said.

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