The family is the basic unit of any society, even as its structure and function can vary considerably across different cultures, writes Nevine El-Aref. All societies have a concept of the family, though this may differ according to the particular culture.
Our knowledge of life and society in ancient Egypt is largely derived from the reliefs engraved on the walls of monuments, tombs, and temples, with these providing a rich saga of the daily lives of wealthy and less wealthy families as well as their hopes for life after death.
The shaft tombs of the Saite-Persian Cemetery southwest of the Neferefre Pyramid at the Abusir Necropolis reveal information about the society that produced them, showcasing the society that produced King Djoser’s Pyramid, the first stone structure in history.
The area was not used until the end of the 26th Dynasty, when high-ranking dignitaries at the royal court selected it to be their final resting place for eternity.
“We don’t know the exact purposes behind the selection. We can only speculate about the reasons,” said Miroslav Bárta, director of the archaeological team from the Czech Institute of Egyptology at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague, which started excavations at this site in the early 1980s.
Bárta said the site is on a straight line connecting the Giza Pyramids with the King Djoser Pyramid, forming the head of two shallow valleys running from the east and southeast. It is also located near older royal structures and has a sanctified status steeped in long-standing tradition.
It is likely close to the cemetery of foreign mercenary soldiers commanded by dignitaries. The geological foundations of the site, characterised by a substantial layer of hardened mud, proved conducive to the construction of tombs.
According to surface and geophysical surveys, the cemetery consists of large and small shaft tombs arranged in two rows stretching approximately west to east. The core of the design consists of a burial chamber constructed from limestone blocks positioned at the base of an expansive shaft measuring up to 12 by 12 metres and reaching depths of up to 25 metres.
After a tomb’s completion, the shaft was backfilled, necessitating access to the burial chamber through a narrow secondary shaft. From there, a horizontal corridor, more akin to a tunnel than a passage, led directly to the chamber entrance.
“This practice of situating burial chambers deep below the surface appears to serve dual purposes,” Bárta said, explaining that it helped to bring the mummies closer to the subterranean realm of the dead, governed by the god Osiris, and to provide protection against tombs raiders.
Despite the apparent grandeur and rich embellishments of the above-ground portions of these structures, many were heavily damaged or entirely obliterated over time.
Scientific studies carried out by the Czech team have revealed that the group of larger and smaller tombs at the cemetery was constructed at the very end of the 26th Dynasty. According to graffiti found in the tomb of Udjahoresnet, its construction begun in the 41st or 42nd year of the reign of Amasis in 529 or 528 BCE.
It is likely that their construction ceased in 525 BCE, when the Persian king Cambyses invaded Egypt and the situation remained unstable for several years. Neither the tomb of Udjahorresnet nor that of Iufaa were completely finished. Some of the tombs were used only after this time during the reign of the Persian King Darius I.
In the vicinity of the large tombs, several simple burials have been found. The bodies, belonging probably to the poor inhabitants of neighbouring villages, were placed in shallow pits in the sand.
Some of these poor burials may come from the late Ptolemaic Period, around 200 to 300 years after the construction of the large shaft tombs, and perhaps represent evidence of the esteem in which the dignitaries buried in this part of the necropolis, and above all Udjahorresnet, were held by subsequent generations.
The most important shaft tombs within the cluster is the intact one of the high priest Iufaa, a rare discovery which made headlines. It consists of a shaft about 28 metres deep and inside it an intact tomb and an enormous white limestone sarcophagus of about 50 tons in weight.
There is a plaster seal between the lid and the sarcophagus itself. Iufaa’s burial chamber and portions of his sarcophagus are lavishly adorned with frequently unique texts and scenes designed to facilitate his journey to the afterlife and ensure a blessed eternal existence.
TOMBS: The oldest tomb is attributed to Udjahorresnet, whose statue is housed in the Vatican Museum in Rome, with the inscription upon it being the most extensive Egyptian record chronicling the events surrounding the conquest of Egypt by the Persian ruler Cambyses in 525 BCE.
Following the Persian occupation, Udjahorresnet, originally the commander of foreign mercenaries and the admiral of the fleet, transitioned into one of the foremost local collaborators with the new rulers.
The burial chamber and double sarcophagus of Menekhibnekau feature an array of texts and relief-carved scenes. While little remains of his once-opulent funerary belongings, notable remnants include a distinctive official seal.
Alongside these three tombs, two additional structures of comparable size have been partially excavated, along with as many as five or six smaller tombs, two of which have undergone excavation. One of these smaller tombs, also housing a decorated burial chamber, belonged to the courtier Padihor.
The newest discovery in the cemetery is the tomb of the high official Djehutiemnakht. The upper part of this tomb, situated above ground, was destroyed in antiquity, while its burial chamber is situated at the bottom of the main shaft located at a depth of 14 metres below ground.
To the north is a small shaft of about 1.2 by 1 metre giving access to the chamber through a narrow horizontal corridor about three metres long.
“Surprisingly enough, the small shaft was partly filled with several dozen large relief blocks from the monumental neighbouring tomb of Menekhibnekau,” said Mohamed Megahed, deputy director of the Czech mission, who added that the burial chamber is richly decorated with texts and scenes.
The northern entrance wall is covered with a long sequence of apotropaic spells against snake bites from the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. “Interestingly, the snakes mentioned in them were on the one hand considered dangerous, but on the other hand also acted as powerful protectors of the deceased and his mummy,” Megahed said.
“It is a richly decorated shaft tomb of medium size, whose owner, a certain Djehutyemhat, held the office of royal scribe,” said Ladislav Bareš, who has coordinated the Czech excavations of the Late Period shaft tombs in Abusir for more than two decades.
“This new find, together with our previous discoveries from this excavation site, as well as the large-scale shaft tomb of Wahibrameryneith, will shed more light on the historical changes taking place in Egypt in the turbulent times of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE,” he said.
The southern and western walls of the tomb are adorned with ritual offerings. On the ceiling of the burial chamber, there are depictions of the sun’s journey across the sky in the morning and evening barques, accompanied by hymns to the rising and setting sun.
The burial chamber is covered with relief decoration, hieroglyphic inscriptions, and depictions of the gods. It contains a large stone sarcophagus, whose lid is adorned with three columns of hieroglyphic texts from Chapter 178 of the Book of the Dead, which is composed of excerpts from the older Pyramid Texts.
The longer sides of the lid feature Chapter 42 of the Book of the Dead, dedicated to the deification of the body of the deceased, including depictions of individual deities to whom the deceased is assimilated. The shorter sides bear images of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, accompanied by texts in which they provide protection to the deceased.
On the outer sides of the chest of the sarcophagus, there are excerpts from the Coffin Texts and Pyramid Texts, partially repeating the spells that appear on the walls of the burial chamber. At the bottom of the inner side of the coffin, Imentet, the goddess of the West, is depicted, and the inner sides contain the so-called “canopic spells” recited by this goddess and the earth god Geb.
All of these religious-magical texts were intended to ensure the deceased’s smooth entry into eternal life in the afterlife.
The tomb of the scribe Djehutyemhat was discovered almost empty, having been robbed, like other tombs in the burial site, probably as early as the 5th century CE. Analysis of the skeletal remains undertaken by leading Egyptian experts has shown that Djehutyemhat died at a relatively early age, bore signs of occupational disease on the spine from sedentary work, and suffered from severe osteoporosis.
“The latter fact could place him within the family of other inhabitants of this burial site, in whom this disease has also been confirmed,” Bárta said.
It is possible that most of the owners of the shaft tombs buried in this part of the Abusir Necropolis belonged to one extended family strongly anchored in the military elite of late Saite Egypt.
Djehutiemhat’s mother, however, probably came from quite different circles and a different part of the country. Her two names can be translated as “Nubian” and “Vixen”, the latter written in an unusual, probably Berber, form. Detailed photographic documentation and analysis of the finds and texts will continue.
Abusir is located about six miles to the south of the Great Pyramid of Khufu and the Sphinx on the Giza Plateau. It is to the north of the first stone pyramid built in Egypt, known as the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. The site contains about 11 pyramids of kings and queens and the sun temples of the Fifth Dynasty.
The Sahure Pyramid, the most famous in Abusir, was excavated by the German Egyptologist Ludwig Burchardt, and it is thought that the pyramid complex contained about 10,000 square metres of wall reliefs.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly