Current IFA Projects at Abydos

Early Royal Monuments

One of the most important initiatives in the Institute of Fine Arts research program at Abydos is the systematic investigation of one of the earliest and most important phases in the site’s long history. Egypt’s earliest kings (1st and 2nd Dynasties, ca. 3050-2650 BCE) built their tombs at a part of Abydos located far into the desert today called Umm el-Qa’ab. A series of much more mysterious early royal monuments were constructed on the desert edge overlooking the ancient town. The Institute’s excavations have revealed that these buildings were integral components of the early royal funerary complex and represent the nascence of royal monumental architectural expression. Each king constructed a remote underground tomb at Umm el-Qa’ab and a monumental ritual precinct, called a funerary cult enclosure, near the town. Only one of these structures is still standing today, although the remains of others have been revealed through excavation. The Institute’s work has much expanded our knowledge of these enclosures and how the early kings appear to have used them to express and define their royal power at the beginning of Egyptian history.

Each royal monument consisted of a ritual precinct open to the sky enclosed by massive mudbrick walls. The Institute’s excavations have resulted in the discovery of the earliest royal enclosures yet known, dating to the reign of king Aha at the beginning of the 1st Dynasty (ca. 3050 BCE). The Institute’s work has also revealed important aspects of how these structures were used as the setting for ritual. Most surprisingly, it appears that these important royal monuments appear to have been deliberately, even ritually demolished and symbolically buried after only a short period of use, probably limited to the reign of the king for whom each was built.

The known enclosures of the 1st Dynasty (ca. 3050-2900 BCE) were regularly accompanied by important ancillary features. Most were surrounded by lines of tombs, and the Institute’s work has produced important new evidence that courtiers and retainers were sacrificed and entombed around the royal enclosure, probably so that they could accompany the king into the next world. In one instance a royal enclosure was accompanied by the burials of ten donkeys in three brick tomb chambers, the earliest complete donkey skeletons ever discovered in the world. In another, one of the enclosures had associated graves that contained, not humans or animals, but, spectacularly, the wooden hulls of a fleet of fourteen large boats, the oldest built boats known. The boats and donkeys, like the sacrificed courtiers, were probably buried to be symbolically translated from this world to the next, to be available to the king there.