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Excavations at the Mortuary Complex of Pharaoh Senwosret III at Abydos

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Abydos is the cult site of Osiris, king of the afterlife and god of the netherworld. It was a place of pilgrimage and considered sacred throughout Egypt's 3000 year history.

Senwosret III built the first hidden royal tomb there, abandoning the pyramid form and setting the stage for the later hidden tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Location Information

Abydos is located on the desert edge (9-miles from the Nile and on the western side of the Nile valley). It is 300 miles south of Cairo. The modern town is Arabeh el-Madfuna, "the buried Arabah." It is in the modern governorate of Sohag Province.

Time Period Studied

Abydos developed during Egypt's Predynastic period (ca. 4000-3000 BCE), and continued to be important throughout pharaonic history and into the Greco-Roman and medieval periods. The Penn Museum excavations are focused on Abydos during the classical phase of the Osiris cult as it became prevalent during the Middle Kingdom (Dynasties 11-13, ca. 1050-1650 BCE).

  • Josef Wegner, Associate Professor of Egyptian Archaeology, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Associate Curator, Egyptian Section, Penn Museum.
Project Overview

Since 1994, the Penn Museum's Egyptian Section has been excavating at the mortuary complex of pharaoh Senwosret III at Abydos. The site of Abydos, in southern Egypt, was one of the most important religious centers of Egyptian civilization. Abydos was the location of the tombs of Egypt's first pharaohs (ca. 3000-2800 BCE). Through the rest of Egyptian history, Abydos served as the main religious center dedicated to the worship of Osiris, god of the afterlife. In an area today called "South Abydos" are remains of a tomb complex built during Egypt's Middle Kingdom by the 12th Dynasty king Khakaure-Senwosret (also called Sesostris III), who reigned ca. 1880-1850 BCE. Making use of the desert landscape, royal architects built an underground tomb for the pharaoh at the foot of the desert cliffs. Associated with this tomb was a mortuary temple and a town site, both built to maintain the afterlife cult of pharaoh Senwosret III. Anciently named Enduring-are-the-Places-of-Khakaure-true-of-voice-in-Abydos, the ruins of this expansive site offer considerable evidence on society and culture during Egypt's Middle Kingdom. Penn Museum excavations are ongoing (as part of the combined University of Pennsylvania-Yale-Institute of Fine Arts/New York University Expedition to Abydos). This work has concentrating on three principal areas: (1) the subterranean tomb of pharaoh Senwosret III; (2) the mortuary temple and associated structures dedicated to the cult of Senwosret III; and (3) the urban remains of the Middle Kingdom town at South Abydos.

Tomb of Senwosret III at Anubis-Mountain

First discovered in 1902, the tomb of Senwosret III is one of the largest royal tombs ever built in ancient Egypt, though perhaps one of the least well understood. The 800-foot long, underground structure was once though to be a cenotaph (symbolic tomb). The current excavations, ongoing since 2004, have now produced considerable archaeological evidence that the tomb was used for the burial of the king. The tomb was reopened in 2005 with support from the National Geographic Society. The ongoing program of excavation is designed to full investigate this unique and significant mortuary monument. The tomb is particularly significant as a transitional form between the earlier tradition of royal pyramids and the hidden-tomb form that is well known from the Valley of the Kings. The tomb's location makes use of a prominent peak in the cliffs which ancient texts designate to be "Anubis-Mountain." Excavation and analysis of this tomb has the goal of understanding changing concepts of the royal afterlife and how these ideas were expressed in new architectural forms.

The Mortuary Temple Nefer-Ka

The temple dedicated to the cult of pharaoh Senwosret III has been under excavation and analysis since 1994. The temple, anciently named Beautiful-is-the-Ka, was the religious and institutional focus of the Middle Kingdom community at South Abydos. Excavations have completed the documentation of the primary temple building. Surrounding areas, including ancient production facilities and industrial installations, as well as the probable locations of satellite temples still remain to be completed. The archaeological deposits around the environs of the temple offer considerable evidence on the administrative and economic systems of maintaining and operating a large royal temple during Egypt's Middle Kingdom. The ongoing work around the mortuary temple is helping to understand address the structure of ancient systems of administration and economy and how these evolved over time.

The Town Site of Wah-Sut

Established at the same time as the tomb and mortuary temple is one of the best-preserved urban sites known for Egypt's Middle Kingdom: a town anciently named Wah-Sut. A planned settlement built by royal architects, this site preserves remains of houses and domestic structures spanning some 200-years from ca. 1850-1650 BCE. Particularly significant has been the ongoing investigation of the largest household: a palatial-scaled (150 x 250 foot ) residence which belonged to a series of sequential mayors of Wah-Sut. This building has been under investigation since 1994. Most recently with support from the American Philosophical Society, work continued in 2008 towards completing the excavation and analysis of this building. The remains of the mayoral residence are helping to elucidate the nature of society at South Abydos in the Middle Kingdom. Future work will complete the study of this major building and expand excavations into many of the smaller houses the comprise the wider town of Wah-Sut. To-date, work has exposed remains of six elite houses adjacent to the mayoral residence with indications of many smaller, lower-status households. Urban archaeology at South Abydos helps to understand the nature of this ancient community that maintained the cult of a long-dead pharaoh over several centuries.

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