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Pyramid Mysteries

The latest discoveries in a 4,000-year-old cemetery near Beni Sweif are providing more information about its destruction by fire, as Nevine El-Aref reports
Three false doors inscribed with religious texts, two offering tables and a collection of clay vessels are the latest finds at the Ehnasya Al-Medina cemetery, lying on the west bank of the Nile almost 15km west of the Upper Egyptian city of Beni Sweif.

Archaeologists now believe that parts of the necropolis were deliberately set on fire at some point in its history.

The site of Ehnasya Al-Medina, which is perched on a hill, incorporates a number of cemeteries and temples spanning from the late First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom through to the Roman period. From this city came the rulers of the Ninth and Tenth dynasties, and here too was the cult centre of the ram-headed local god of fertility, Herishef, for whom the Middle Kingdom rulers built a temple in the centre of the city which was enlarged during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II of the New Kingdom. This temple was first excavated in 1891 by Naville and D'Hulst, who found only Ramesside remains, but in 1904 it was re-excavated by Petrie who found a superb gold statue of Herishef.

Excavations at Ehnasya Al-Medina were conducted during the 1960s and 1970s by several Spanish missions, but in 1984 a mission from the Archaeological National Museum of Madrid concentrated its work on the necropolis dated to the First- Intermediate-Period (2195-2066 BC), where a series of tombs with vaulted ceilings were uncovered. One revealed an example of one of the earliest-known versions of the Coffin Texts incorporating revised extracts from the earlier Pyramid Texts. These tombs were built of limestone and mud brick and lined up in 'streets of the dead'. Some of them were very jumbled but still contained inscribed false-doors, stelae, offering tables, and ceramic and clay vessels. The most important discovery in the necropolis was made in 2000 when the tomb of a high official named Wadjt-Hetep was found, its painted walls featuring the funerary feast.

Various objects have been found over successive years, and during this year's archaeological season the mission found three limestone false doors inscribed with religious texts, two offering tables and a collection of pottery. They also came across an archaeological level dating from much earlier than the First Intermediate Period with fragments of Meidum bowls embedded in its sandy deposit. These Meidum bowls have relatively tall and distinctly concave sides made of fine marl fabric, and were known as early as the First Dynasty. Early examples have the maximum diameter at the shoulder of the bowl; in the Fourth Dynasty the maximum diameter is situated at the rim; and during the Sixth Dynasty the rim diameter was greater than the shoulder diameter.

"The discovery of these fragments may indicate that there was activity at the site in the earlier Fifth Dynasty and before," says Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). He says a detailed analysis of the occurrence of such forms within the stratigraphic sequence of the site is necessary before this can be confirmed.

Excavation work extended to the eastern side of the necropolis, revealing five burials with vaulted chambers. Among them was a well-preserved burial still containing a body which was covered by a protective layer of plaster. Related to these burials were four deposits of pottery, mainly jars, and an offering table displaced from its original position. Two further individual tombs were found, one containing osseous bovine remains.

Carmen Perez Die, director of the Spanish Mission, said that studies of the pottery previously found on the site had made it possible to draw a complete profile of the newly-found vessels. They are all about 40 pieces of different types, at least seven not known before. Among them are some remarkably large vessels, probably used for storage, to which the dating of its material can be limited to the Late First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom.

Die said ceramic material including some finds made in situ were unearthed, with a remarkable discovery of the so-called hes -vase, which is very well known from depictions in offering scenes and from other sites and other periods. "For Ehnasya this is the first time to have such a find, and the comparison with similar forms from other sites will probably give more clues," Die stated.

He said the team had tried to study the First Intermediate Period and the early Middle Kingdom necropolis as well as make an interpretation of data collected in regard to a great fire that appears to have razed the necropolis in antiquity. This research involved defining possible traces of fire and smoke on both the stone tombs and the mud-brick walls. Team members carried out an experiment on the mud bricks by subjecting them to a fire test in a specially- constructed, wood-fired "oven".

"We have been able to determine that there were individual, localised fires; some of the stone tombs were burned as well as some of the individuals who have been found," Die concluded. "We can presume that these fires broke out intentionally and caused the destruction of the necropolis."

False doors discovered in Ehnasya Al-Medina cemetery


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