Rediscovering a Forgotten Egyptian Pharaoh: A Penn Student’s Experience in the Field

March 17, 2014

In January, researchers from the Penn Museum made an historic discovery in Abydos, Egypt—unearthing the tomb and skeletal remains of a previously unknown pharaoh, Woseribre Senebkay, who reigned in the 17th century BCE. The finding was the culmination of work at the site that began in summer 2013 by a team led by Dr. Josef Wegner, Egyptian Section Associate Curator of the Penn Museum.

Excavation team
Penn student Paul Verhelst (center, in white) sits with the excavation team at Abydos. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Wegner.

Several students from the University of Pennsylvania went along as part of the excavation team, including Paul Verhelst (pictured, in white shirt), a graduate student in the Department of Near East Languages and Civilizations here at Penn. Paul was nice enough to answer some questions about this life-changing experience for the Penn Museum blog.


How did you come to be a part of this excavation?

While doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, I participated on my first excavation in Egypt through Penn State at the site of Mendes, which sealed the deal and made me determined to become an archaeologist. After earning my Bachelor’s degree in 2011, I took a year off to excavate in Jordan through the University of California: San Diego and work on a cultural resource management project in Missouri. While working in Missouri, I started hearing back from graduate schools and learned that I was accepted into the Master’s Program in Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania. A few days later, Dr. Joe Wegner contacted me to talk about the program and a few weeks later, I accepted the offer to attend Penn in the fall of 2012. I owe a lot to Joe, since he not only helped me to decide on Penn and acts as my advisor, but also gave me the chance to work in Abydos during this past summer and winter. Both times at Abydos have been awesome experiences and I’ve had the chance to work with some great people, including Joe, Dr. Jen Wegner and Alexander Wegner, fellow graduate students Kevin Cahail, Shelby Justl, and Matt Olson, Penn volunteers Jess Cahail and Jamie Kelly, as well as many great and friendly Egyptians.

What were your responsibilities at the site?

Team photo
From left: Jamie Kelly, Paul Verhelst, Dr. Jennifer Wegner. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Wegner.

This winter season, I worked on material that was stored at the American dig house in Abydos with Jen and Jamie. This mostly involved sorting and drawing pottery from previous seasons along with helping to organize and draw the artifacts that came back from site. No matter how much I fight it, I am somehow drawn to pottery, which is good because there is usually a lot of it. I find it fascinating that so much information can be cram-packed into a tiny potsherd!

I also worked on some of the skeletal material that Kevin had excavated before we arrived this winter. So even before the discovery of Senebkay’s tomb, Matt and I were doing osteology work on the large amount of skeletal remains that came from other tombs in South Abydos. Human and animal skeletal remains fascinate me almost as much as pottery sherds, since they can reveal interesting information on the life of an individual or animal.

Was the current political climate in Egypt a factor in the excavations?

The political situation in Egypt didn’t affect us while at Abydos. We felt safe at the dig house and the Egyptians who worked with us were very friendly and welcoming as always. There have been some problems with illicit digging at Abydos, which might stem from the political situation, but the excavation directors have taken measures to discourage this illicit digging. The biggest impact we witnessed was when we went to the city of Luxor, which has some of Egypt’s most popular monuments and is usually full of tourists during the winter. However, when we went to Luxor for a weekend, the number of tourists was extremely low and shows the impact of the political situation on the tourism industry.

Tell us about the discovery of Senebkay’s tomb.

The royal cartouche of the pharaoh Senebkay. Photo by Dr. Jennifer Wegner.

While working on an area in front of the tomb of Sobekhotep I, a line of mudbricks was found, which resembled the layout of previous tombs Kevin had excavated that were non-decorated and didn’t provide much for artifacts. It was getting towards the end of the season, but Joe and Kevin decided to excavate it. The tomb was similar to the previous tombs in design, but the big difference was the decoration in the burial chamber of the tomb, which even early on they could tell was going to be remarkable. The tomb decoration was the only the beginning of the excitement. As they continued to excavate, more decoration and eventually the cartouche containing the name of King Senebkay was revealed in the burial chamber.

Body of Senebkay
Excavation team members surround the skeletal remains of the rediscovered pharaoh. Photo by Dr. Jennifer Wegner.

A couple of days later, the excavation of the antechamber exposed the remains of King Senebkay, his canopic chest, and the remnants of Senebkay’s mummy mask. The arrangement of the skeletal remains and objects outside of the burial chamber was an indication that Senebkay’s tomb was plundered by ancient robbers; however, through the excavation techniques of Joe, Kevin and Matt a good amount of information was gathered about the remains and objects. This discovery provided for an eventful and busy last few days of excavation and holds up the saying that all the good stuff is found in the last days of excavating.

What was your favorite experience?

My favorite experience is the actual work I get to do when I arrive at Abydos. For me, there is no better feeling then getting to apply what I’ve learned in school to the field. Whether it’s getting to excavate or draw pottery, I simply love the work and experience that comes with having a career in archaeology. Another great experience is just hanging out with the team throughout the day, which produced many inside jokes, some interesting stories, and a whole lot of shenanigans!

How about your least favorite experience?

My least favorite experience is the eight-hour drive from Cairo to Abydos. This drive seems to last forever, which is probably due to a combination of jet lag, the eight-hour car ride and depending on the season the heat. For some reason this is not true for the drive back to Cairo from Abydos at the end of the season. This seems to fly by in comparison, which is probably due to us all sleeping most of the way after the big rush to finish everything at the end of the season.

What’s next for future excavations at Abydos?

Excavation site
A view of the excavation site, looking south-southwest. Photo by Dr. Josef Wegner.

The area around the tomb of Senebkay was of great interest before this discovery and now I think Joe and Kevin will be making this area the prime focus for future South Abydos excavations. Work will continue on excavating the tomb of Sobekhotep I, which is near the tomb of Senebkay, and further excavations in the area of these two tombs might reveal other tombs in the same or better condition as the tomb of Senebkay.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I am in my last semester of my Master’s degree through the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) Department. I recently accepted an offer to stay at Penn and continue into the Ph.D. program through NELC. I hope that I will be able to go back to Abydos this summer and help with the excavations as well as conduct some experiments with ancient Egyptian firing practices involving pottery and bricks. Overall, I’m excited to be staying in Philadelphia, continuing my education at Penn and working at the Penn Museum.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing a career in archaeology?

Find out what most excites you about archaeology, whether it is the ancient language, history, and/or unanswered questions of a specific culture, the scientific methods and technology that go into analyzing sites and artifacts, or the thought of getting dirty during excavations, and use that to fuel your ambition to become an archaeologist. Pursuing a career in archaeology requires hard work and determination, but the journey towards that goal will be rewarding as you learn more about the aspects of archaeology that interest you, work on different excavations, visit the places you have seen in books, and my personal favorite, making life-long friends who become your colleagues and support base.