National Geographic : 2005 Apr
Sacrificed for her king, an elite woman in a wood coffin comes to light next to a royal enclosure. Five other courtiers lie nearby. After weeks of searching for the king's identity, archaeologists found his name on wine stoppers and part of a jar (right): Aha, first ruler of the 1st dynasty. crew is working with a team of archaeologists to uncover part of the immense royal burial center at Abydos, located 260 miles up the Nile from Cairo. As a line of workers use hoe-like tureyasto scrape away the sand, the so-named bucket boys haul away clanking pails of dirt and pour it like water into the laps of sifters. Exca vators are on the ground with trowels in hand, surveyors are plotting the coordinates of arti facts, a photographer is documenting each new find, and illustrators are pencil-drawing an ancient coffin and an infant skeleton. Kneeling on one knee in the center of this swarm is Matthew Adams, associate director of a multiyear project sponsored by the Univer sity of Pennsylvania Museum, Yale University, and New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. Adams is brushing sand away to reveal a smooth, ancient mud floor. "If this is from the time of Aha," he says in a raspy voice dried out from months in the desert, "then it's the oldest funer ary enclosure ever found in Egypt. We're talking about the beginning of Egyptian history. Not one trowel has been laid here before now." Abydos is the source of many of Egypt's most ancient artifacts. In 1988 Gtinter Dreyer, a German archaeologist, unearthed small bone and ivory tags intricately inscribed with one of the world's earliest forms of writing-crude 112 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * APRIL 2005 hieroglyphs developed at about the same time as Mesopotamian cuneiform. In 1991 Adams's men tor and the project's director, David O'Connor, uncovered an eerie fleet of wooden boats buried in enormous brick-lined graves. Now O'Connor and Adams are digging down into the beginning of Egypt's 1st dynasty, a piv otal period when kings laid down the roots of religion, government, and architecture that would last for the next 3,000 years. Unlike the colossal pyramids of later pharaohs, the more modest burial complexes of the Abydos kings consisted of two separate structures-a tomb and a ceremonial enclosure. The large, walled enclosures where mortuary rituals were per formed were situated on the edge of town, while the underground tombs were located more than a mile away on the threshold of the desolate Western Desert, a place known to ancient Egyp tians as the land of the dead. All of the 1st-dynasty tombs and most of the enclosures excavated so far are accompanied by subsidiary graves-hundreds in some cases containing the remains of elite officials and cour tiers. Egyptologists have long speculated that these graves might hold victims of sacrifice but also acknowledged that they could simply be graves reserved for the king's staff, ready to use as each person died naturally.