Ancient peoples throughout the world had sophisticated understandings of their landscape. Specific elements, such as mountains, were often identified as having divine meaning. These were used to conceptualize the links between humans and the forces that governed creation and their destiny.
Recent work at South Abydos has revealed that the subterranean tomb of Senwosret III was built at the foot of a prominent, pyramidal peak in the desert cliffs of Abydos. Named the Mountain-of-Anubis by the Egyptians, this sacred mountain formed the conceptual anchor of Senwosret III’s mortuary complex, Enduring-Are-the-Places-of-Khakaure-True-of-Voice-in-Abydos. The design of the tomb and the way in which it relates to this mountain peak provide important clues for understanding Middle Kingdom ideas about the royal afterlife.
The Innovative Design of a Hidden Royal Tomb
The tomb of Senwosret III is a magnificent example of ancient Egyptian royal mortuary architecture and a truly remarkable engineering achievement. Hewn into the limestone bedrock 30 m (100 feet) below the desert surface, this mammoth tomb extends below ground for 180 m, with its inner half lying beneath the limestone cliffs. The majority of its interior architecture was laboriously lined with finely dressed limestone and red quartzite masonry.
An important aspect of the tomb’s architecture is its emphasis on concealment and protection. Its builders prevented access to the royal burial chamber by plugging the entrance corridor with 14 granite blocks, the largest weighing about 215 tons. The quartzite lining of the burial chamber also hid the location of Senwosret III’s sarcophagus and canopicchest. Despite these, and other ingenious devices, its concealment ultimately failed, and ancient tomb robbers plundered the tomb.
Although a number of features of this tomb can be traced to earlier Middle Kingdom royal pyramids, its architecture more closely parallels the design of later New Kingdom royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes. For example, the parallel well-shaft chambers in its outer section may represent a symbolic association with the idea of the sun’s descent into the realm of Osiris. Both the shaft chamber and the curvilinear design and changing axis of the tomb’s inner elements also occur in the 18th Dynasty tombs in the Valley of the Kings (ca. 1500–1300 BCE).
The design of Senwosret III’s tomb suggests an architectural expression of a particular form of ancient Egyptian royal funerary literature called the Amduat. This text first appears as painted decoration on the walls of royal burial chambers during the early 18th Dynasty in the Valley of the Kings. The actual ancient Egyptian name of the text—The-Book-of-the-Hidden-Chamber—reveals its primary focus as a netherworld guide through the 12 hours of the night (Egyptian Duat, or netherworld) that allowed the pharaoh to merge with Osiris and the sun-god Re in a hidden chamber located at the midpoint of the sun’s nightly journey. This mystical union permitted an eternal rebirth on the eastern horizon of heaven.
With its centrally positioned burial chamber, hidden sarcophagus, and other features, Senwosret III’s tomb seems to reflect the idea of this netherworld passage, perhaps making it the earliest example of a royal Amduat-tomb. At the very least, this tomb was a purposefully hidden royal burial place, the first such in Egyptian history and a critical developmental link between the earlier pyramid tradition and the famous tombs of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.
The Discovery of the Mountain-Of-Anubis
Among ancient Egypt’s rich pantheon the most familiar and recognizable deity is the jackal god Anubis, best known for his role as the god of mummification. Funerary scenes often show Anubis preparing the body of the deceased for its passage to the netherworld. Seen in a form called Anubis-who-is-upon-his-mountain, we also know Anubis as necropolis protector, perhaps best illustrated in the Valley of the Kings during the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1050 BCE) when necropolis seals bore the image of Anubis dominating Egypt’s traditional enemies. These enemies were the “9-bows” who symbolized chaotic forces that might threaten the integrity of royal burials and the pharaohs’ afterlife.
In 2004 in the tomb enclosure of Senwosret III, we discovered a series of clay seal impressions closely related to the necropolis seals from the Valley of the Kings. These impressions were produced from a single seal inscribed with the figure of Anubis, reclining upon a shrine. Below the shrine is the hieroglyphic symbol for mountain, in English, Mountain-of-Anubis.
This ancient seal has helped us understand the constellation of features found in the mortuary complex of Senwosret III. In 1994, when first starting work at South Abydos, I had already noticed that the tomb’s natural setting possessed unique physical qualities. While the cliffs that frame the wider desert area of Abydos look different from various perspectives, the area chosen for Senwosret III’s tomb—the base of the highest, most prominent part of the cliffs—blocks all of the adjacent cliffs from view. This imparts the visual impression of a freestanding, natural, pyramid-shaped mountain, the perfect substitute for the traditional built pyramid. Senwosret III’s architects positioned his tomb to make use of this mountain peak, and they built his tomb underground, beneath it.
With the discovery of the official necropolis seal impressions in the tomb enclosure we can identify the Mountain-of-Anubis as the divine name for this mountain. More widely, Mountain-of-Anubis also referred to the tomb enclosure of Senwosret III. Anubis, therefore, was manifest here both in his role as protector of the royal burial place—Anubis-who-is-upon-his-mountain—and in the form of the actual mountain which sat above the royal tomb!
The Processional Entrance to the Underground Tomb
When Arthur Weigall discovered the tomb of Senwosret III in 1902 he had hundreds of men excavate through approximately 12 m (40 feet) of desert sand to find bedrock and locate its entrance. One visitor in 1903 described the resulting pit through the loose desert sand as the “devil’s punch bowl.” To prevent the sides of the pit from collapsing, Weigall and later Charles Currelly erected unmortared brick retaining walls.
When our work on the tomb began in 2004 we opened a larger area than Weigall had, allowing us to secure the excavation’s boundaries well beyond the tomb’s entrance. While doing so, we removed many of the loose bricks from the earlier dig and discovered a major architectural feature that had been previously missed—a beautiful brick staircase with wide shallow steps descending from the desert surface down to the tomb’s entrance.
This staircase confirms that the tomb was intentionally built without a superstructure and that it was meant to be hidden. After the tomb was sealed, both it and its staircase would have rapidly become cloaked by the windswept sand of the low desert or even intentionally filled in. Its gentle, shallow steps also suggest that it was probably designed to be used ceremonially, perhaps in a religious procession that culminated inside the tomb, such as the burial rites of Senwosret III.
A Ritual Purification House
Further support for the existence of royal funerary ceremonies held here comes from the aboveground features found within the 5-m high walls of Senwosret III’s T-shaped tomb enclosure. This enclosure originally contained buildings of different types, however, most of these structures were purposefully razed or buried inside dummy mastabas (S7 and S8) immediately following the completion and closing of the subterranean tomb.
One structure that survived was a small building (7.6 x 12.3 m) standing in a low hollow just outside the enclosure’s entrance. In 2004 we excavated this simple two-room structure and discovered something entirely unforeseen. Piled outside was a dense deposit of discarded water jars and an astounding concentration of different types of bowls, all containing a residue of burnt incense resin. In contrast to the standard incense offering found in ancient Egyptian temples (where a special burner is used before a deity), the volume of incense burning seen here suggests that this building was used to ritually purify or fumigate people or materials before they entered the tomb enclosure.
This type of building was known to the ancient Egyptians as a per-wabet (“house of purification”). Inside its inner room we found a 1-m high brick bench adjacent to a small niche with a limestone base—the apparent focus of a ritual purification ceremony. Such purification rites were required for those entering a sacred space and/or performing religious rituals, such as royal mortuary ceremonies. Could this indicate that Senwosret III was actually buried here at Abydos?
Reopening The Tomb
When the Egypt Exploration Fund ended its work in 1903, they left the entrance to Senwosret III’s tomb open to the elements. The steep sandy sides of the pit eventually collapsed, filling the tomb’s entrance, while the relentless winds gradually buried the site under 15 m of sand.
When we arrived in 1994 the tomb’s location was marked by a vast sandy bowl. Using as many as 200 men we re-excavated the entrance over the course of 5 months in 2004 and 2005. On December 26, 2005, we were rewarded with the first glimpse of the tomb in just over a century.
Heat and humidity were oppressive inside the tomb, making photography and architectural planning difficult. One immediate reality, which I had anticipated, was that the tomb interior had not been properly excavated in 1902–1903, leaving most of it filled with debris. Nevertheless, we were able to complete a photographic survey and plan of the interior architecture, discovering considerable errors in the 1903 sketch plan of the tomb.
Since the extent of the earlier excavation was limited primarily to the burial chamber and only two other rooms, we expect that the largely unexcavated portions of the tomb will provide material evidence of its original use and contents. In coming seasons, we also hope to determine when and how the tomb was plundered by ancient robbers as we systematically excavate the full tomb and begin the restoration of its magnificent architecture, transforming it in future years into a monument for all to visit.