Field Notes: The vividness of Ramesses II at Abydos

Editor’s Note: Peter Lacovara, Senior Curator at Emory University’s Carlos Museum, has worked on numerous expeditions in Egypt and published several books on his work and experience, including The Pyramids and Sphinx, Tombs and Temples of Giza, and Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries from the Petrie Museum of Egyptology. Other blogs in this series can be found here.

While not nearly as well known as his father’s temple at Abydos, Ramesses II also built a temple there which is open for tourists to see. While it is smaller, less well-preserved and not as finely carved as Seti’s temple, Ramesses II’s monument is notable for the vivid color that is preserved on many of the remaining walls.

MCCM R II reliefMany of the kings of the New Kingdom built temples at Abydos to honor Osiris at the edge of the desert, but few are well preserved. Ramesses’ temple used both limestone and sandstone along with black granite for the doorways and alabaster for the central shrine.  This temple was built during his early reign, when he ruled alongside his father, and the quality of some of the carving approaches that of Seti.

Ramesses II Tempe Abydos offering procession

While Osiris was the chief god worshiped here, many other deities where honored in the temple. A head of the god Amun with ram horns and filled in with blue paint, now in the Michael C. Carlos Museum, may have come from this very destroyed structure.

Field Notes: Dr. Peter Lacovara on the Mystery of the Osirion

Editor’s Note: Peter Lacovara, Senior Curator at Emory University’s Carlos Museum, has worked on numerous expeditions in Egypt and published several books on his work and experience, including The Pyramids and Sphinx, Tombs and Temples of Giza, and Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries from the Petrie Museum of Egyptology. Other blogs in this series can be found here.

One of the most interesting monuments at Abydos is rarely seen. Situated behind the beautiful Temple of Seti I, the Osirion or Osireon has been the subject of much speculation as to its date and purpose. The vast temple is built 40 feet below ground level and is frequently flooded, but fortunately the water receded enough when I was here so that I could get into it with special permission.

The Osirion at AbydosThe Osirion at Abydos

The temple is built of massive granite blocks, some weighing as much as 60 tons, and is unlike the other limestone and sandstone temples here. The style of the building evokes the design of the Valley Temple of Khafre at Giza and that has caused some scholars to suggest the temple dates back to the Old Kingdom, more than a thousand years before Seti’s temple.

The temple is carved with scenes of King Merneptah, Seti’s grandson, who also decorated a long entrance passage built to the west of the Osirion that was decorated with carved and painted scenes from the “Book of Gates,” as were the Ramesside tombs in Valley of the Kings.  It may be that Merneptah attempted to finish a temple built by his grandfather or by his father, Ramesses II.  It appears as though they were trying to evoke the antiquity of Osiris by building in an earlier style. The construction techniques used, though, are clearly not Old Kingdom, and this area of the site shows no evidence of being occupied at that period. Moreover, the cult of Osiris did not become widely popular until after the Old Kingdom.

By the New Kingdom, and even more so in the Late Period, Osiris was of supreme importance and thousands of statues were made of him to be offered at temples and sacred sites throughout Egypt.

Field Notes: Why the pyramids of Abydos are the most fascinating in Egypt

Editor’s Note: Peter Lacovara, Senior Curator at Emory University’s Carlos Museum, has worked on numerous expeditions in Egypt and published several books on his work and experience, including The Pyramids and Sphinx, Tombs and Temples of Giza, and Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries from the Petrie Museum of Egyptology. The first blog in this series can be found here.

For some years, Abydos was a rather difficult place to visit in Egypt, requiring special permission for tourists. Today, the site is a bit more accessible. Though one cannot say that it holds great sightseeing treasures like the Great Pyramids of Giza or the Temples of Luxor, its significance in Egyptian history cannot be questioned.

Many mysteries surround this archaeological site. It was a holy site to the Egyptians, where some of the earliest rulers were probably buried, but it remained a focus of religious activity for thousands of years.

One such mystery surrounds the rubble core and casing stone that marks the remains of the last known royal pyramid built in Egypt, by the founder of the New Kingdom, Ahmose. A textual reference records a pyramid built by Tuthmosis I at Abydos, but nothing of it has ever been discovered.

In 1993, the Pennsylvania-Yale Institute of Fine Arts Expedition, led by Stephen Harvey, began a new survey of this complex, initiating ongoing excavations at and around the pyramid. We visited Stephen in 2002 during his stay at the Hotel Longchamps, a favorite Tour Egypt hotel on Zamalek in Cairo that has also become home for many Egyptologists on their way to their digs. Stephen has since moved on to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, but his excavations continue, and a number of interesting finds have been made.

Ahmose Model GroupIn 2003, the team discovered three new buildings in Abydos. Among their findings were walls and related buildings near another pyramid, engraved bricks with the names of people responsible for the construction of the buildings, fragments of decorated limestone temple reliefs, parts of statues, and small inscribed stone slabs used as part of worship that are known as votive stelae.

The discoveries are part of a collection of documentation that pushes back the date of complex artistic representation of warfare in Egypt. The site has yielded the earliest-known paintings of horses and chariots used in battle, as well as the earliest-known representation of a practice that later became common in battle documentation: paintings of collections of the severed hands of enemies.

But Abydos has other stories to tell, such as those suggesting some women held extraordinary levels of power within their communities.

One of the buildings the team discovered is a temple that was likely dedicated to Ahmose Nefertary, the wife and sister of the Pharaoh Ahmose, who ruled from about 1550 to 1525 B.C. and built Egypt’s last pyramid. The team also excavated at a pyramid dedicated to another important woman, Queen Tetisheri, grandmother of Ahmose and his wife.

Other areas around the pyramid have proved easier to deal with, however. In addition to the temple believed to be dedicated to Ahmose Nefertary, the team also found another temple. They also will excavate a large structure that measures 115 by 130 feet, and which may have been an administrative or production center for a cult that developed around Ahmose, who was considered a god.

 Located near what is thought to have been a bakery, this administration building may provide clues that underscore one of the sites fundamental values: it contains structures that are part of a working community. Scholars will learn what role the temple played in the economy and social organization of the community.

Hence, the Pyramid complex of Ahmose at Abydos, located at the junction between the low desert and the floodplain, not only includes a temple, but also a large, unfinished rock-cut tomb far out in the desert, and beyond that, at the foot of the cliffs, a stone and brick-walled platform probably intended to support a building which appears never to have been constructed. About halfway between the pyramid and tomb is the brick shrine dedicated to Ahmose’s grandmother, Tetisheri, where a stela that recorded Ahmose’s decision to build a shrine for her was found.

Really, of all the pyramids built in Egypt, that of Ahmose at Abydos is one of the most intriguing.

It signals the end of the Pyramid Age and to some extent, a changing of the guards in funerary practices. The earliest pyramids were focused on the sun god, Re, but even prior to Ahmose, the mythology surrounding the funerary god, Osiris, was being incorporated into the substructures of the later pyramids. By building his complex at Abydos, Ahmose certainly intended to associate his mortuary cult more directly with Osiris. After Ahmose, the kings of Egypt would, for the most part, completely abandon the pyramid structure.

However, Ahmose’s predecessors in the 17th Dynasty (Second Intermediate Period) were buried under similarly steeply angled, though much smaller, pyramids. Dr. Harvey suggests that Ahmose’s pyramid was intended to evoke a memory of the powerful national rulers of earlier periods, and hence reinforce his legitimacy as their heir. Given the substantial size of Ahmose’s pyramid, this is an attractive suggestion. Clearly, during the future excavations by Harvey’s team, the complex will offer up many interesting finds and advance our knowledge of the founding of Egypt’s New Kingdom empire period.

Field Notes: Egyptologist Peter Lacovara takes us back to Abydos

Editor’s Note: Peter Lacovara, Senior Curator at Emory University’s Carlos Museum, has worked on numerous expeditions in Egypt and published several books on his work and experience, including The Pyramids and Sphinx, Tombs and Temples of Giza, and Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries from the Petrie Museum of Egyptology.

Dr. Lacovara earned his Ph.D in Egyptian Archaeology from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. He will be filing periodic reports directly from the field as part of an exciting partnership between HMNS and the Carlos Museum to bring these incredible artifacts to audiences via HMNS’ upcoming Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Peter Lacovara, Senior Curator at Emory University's Carlos Museum

I am back here at Abydos working with Dr. Janet Richards of the University of Michigan on her excavations at the Middle Cemetery, finishing up the work we started during the Egyptian revolution in January and February 2011. I had come here initially to study the mummified remains from Michigan’s excavations in order to figure out some of the details of the wrappings, which we needed to know to complete the restoration of Emory’s Old Kingdom mummy. In looking through all the material that had been discovered, I realized how important the artifacts were from the tomb of Weni.

Everyone who has studied ancient Egyptian history is familiar with the autobiographical inscription of the official Weni the Elder, dating to Dynasty VI (ca. 2323-2150 B.C.) who, at the end of the Old Kingdom, led an expedition to Nubia. The inscription, carved on a limestone slab, describes Weni’s service under three kings, culminating in his appointment as governor of Upper Egypt. The objects that had come from the burial, though now all sadly in a very fragmentary state, confirm how important an official Weni was and that this was, indeed, his burial place.

offering cups from Umm el Ga'ab

By this time, Abydos had grown to be an important cult center, as the worship of the god Osiris had become popular throughout Egypt. As the god of the dead, he played the pivotal role in everyone’s hopes for an afterlife. Being the Mythic first king of Egypt, Osiris was associated with the First Dynasty Royal Cemetery at Abydos. Pilgrims came from all over and left so many small votive cups and jars at the site that its name in Arabic is “Umm el Ga’ab,” or  “Mother of Pots.”

People estimate that there may have been as many as 8 million offering vessels brought here.