Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.
Every excavation season in Egypt has a tradition of providing something new, whether it is a new experience, new knowledge, or a new discovery. This summer was a continuation of that tradition as I returned for my fifth excavation season at the archaeological site of Abydos with the Penn Museum research team. Abydos is located in the middle of Egypt, about 300 miles south of Cairo, and is the setting for many excavations focusing on different periods of ancient Egyptian history. Current Penn Museum research focuses on the Middle Kingdom Funerary Enclosure of Senwosret III and the town-site of Wah-sut, the Second Intermediate Period Royal Necropolis, and the New Kingdom cemetery located in South Abydos. This summer season I spent most of my time excavating in the town-site of Wah-sut as well as continuing my research on the remnants of a sacred lake known today as the Malih. This blog post will focus on the sealings and snakes or excavation portion of my time at Abydos this summer. The sacred lake portion of my summer involves conducting more research on the Malih, which I will talk about in a later blog post.
This summer gave me the chance to return to the town-site of Wah-sut, which the Middle Kingdom King Senwosret III founded in order to support the construction of his funerary enclosure and temple as well as maintain his funerary cult. The focus of my excavation was a large debris deposit near a building known as the areryt or administrative gatehouse. This debris deposit formed as residents of the mayor’s house and nearby houses dumped their garbage outside the town’s boundary wall near the areryt. From the reign of Senwosret III when Wah-sut was founded to the Late Middle Kingdom when it was abandoned (1850-1650 BCE), this debris deposit grew as the residents of the Wah-sut dumped numerous pottery sherds, animal bones, and other objects that made up their garbage. After the town’s abandonment, windblown sand covered the debris deposit and it remained relatively undisturbed for 3,800 years.
Unfortunately, sand is not the only thing covering the debris deposit today. Debris mounds from previous excavations along with modern garbage from the nearby village of el-Araba now cover the sand overlying the debris deposit. The excavation team worked for over a week to remove the debris mounds, garbage, and sand until they reached the grayish-brown silty soil of the debris deposit. Nothing rewards patience and hard work like finding so much that I was constantly bagging and tagging artifacts and recording in my notebook throughout the workday. I couldn’t have ask for a better typical day of excavation, especially since it made the workday fly by and the 100-120 degree Fahrenheit temperatures less noticeable.
So what kept me so busy throughout the workday? The most common artifact from the debris deposit was thousands of pottery sherds from a range of different vessel types. Usually there was the random assortment of pottery sherds, but occasionally we found a semi-intact pot, which began the search for the other pieces of the pot that would complete the 4,000-year-old jigsaw puzzle. Another artifact that comes out in large numbers is animal bones from cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, and fish, which the ancient Egyptians ate to satisfy their diets. Many of the bone elements that came out from the debris deposit were rib, feet, and vertebrae bones from the animals previously mentioned. However, this season provided some interesting bone elements from pigs and fish, which continue to be questions to which I’m still trying to find the answers. Other artifacts that came from the debris deposit include fruit pits, seeds, flint blades, alabaster vessel fragments, small clay figurines, loom weights, spinning whorls, a spinning bowl, balls of human hair, copper objects, and the always-present faience beads.
An artifact of particular importance from the debris deposits are small clay sealings, which are the remnants of a clay lump pressed over rope that was wrapped around doors, pots, boxes, baskets, and papyrus documents and then impressed with the seal of an individual or institution. The impressed clay sealing would officially close the door, pot, box, basket, or papyrus document and prevented anyone from tampering with it until an official broke the clay sealing in order to gain access to the object of interest and discarded the broken sealing. Such activity must have occurred in the areryt or mayor’s house in Wah-sut as the debris deposit contains a large variety of clay sealings.
Finding these grayish-brown pieces of impressed clay is not an easy task as the debris deposit contains grayish-brown soil mixed with non-impressed grayish-brown clay lumps, as well as the other artifacts. However, the extra time and concentration needed to find the clays sealings are well worth it as the corpus of clay sealings has proved to be valuable in reconstructing the economic and administrative ties between individuals and institutions in Abydos during the Middle Kingdom. The excavations of this summer and previous excavations have produced thousands of clay sealings. Many of the clay sealings excavated from the debris deposit represent examples found elsewhere in Wah-sut. However, the debris deposit excavations have produced many examples of new and complete clay sealings, which may shed some new light on the interactions occurring between the Wah-sut, the Senwosret III funerary enclosure and temple, and other towns in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom.
Even though excavating the debris deposit in Wah-sut took up much of my time, occasionally I got the chance to venture to see Dr. Joe Wegner’s excavations near the Funerary Enclosure of Senwosret III. On one particular visit, it became apparent that there were a few snakes out that summer near where Dr. Wegner was working based on the amount of snake tracks visible in the sand. Having worked on various excavations in the United States, Jordan, and Egypt, I was used to dealing with a variety of wildlife, which is very much part of any archaeologist’s job. However, I had yet to encounter or even see my first snake in Egypt, but I knew the experience would happen eventually based on the stories from members of the Penn Museum research team.
On another visit to Dr. Wegner’s excavations, some workers noticed snake tracks leading into the tomb of Senebkay in which some people were working. I steered clear of Senebkay’s tomb and went to view the other excavations happening nearby. A few minutes later, one of the khuftis came to tell me that one of the workers had killed a horned viper in Senebkay’s tomb and invited me to come and see it. Luckily, my first snake experience in Egypt involved looking at the horned viper from a distance after it was dead rather than encountering a living one. It was surreal to see the horned viper. It was quite long and many workers commented on how it was the longest horned viper they had seen in Abydos. It even had the horns on its head, from which it gets its name. Many people got up close to take pictures of it, but I decided to take my pictures from a distance on top of a sand mound. I was perfectly happy to not be close to something so powerful and dangerous, whether it was dead or alive.
This summer season at Abydos has provided many new discoveries through excavating the debris deposit in the town-site of Wah-sut and finding some interesting artifacts, and some new experiences as I had my first and probably not my last snake encounter in Egypt. So as I said in the beginning of this blog post, Egypt does not disappoint when it comes to new discoveries and experiences.