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.

Who were the Maya? Who would you have been in ancient Mexico?

Who were the Maya? I’ve become interested in Mayan civilization for various reasons. One, it’s 2012, and there are the obvious accompanying prophecies of the apocalypse. Two, I grew up listening to stories about the Maya as part of my culture.

The Maya people are widely regarded as a civilization ahead of their time — an ancient culture who built great pyramids, created a calendar using the stars, and continue to thrive in the cold, mountainous regions of Guatemala and Southern Mexico as well as in the rainforests of Northern Guatemala and Southern Belize.

2012 Mayan_30x402012: Mayan Prophecies is currently showing in the HMNS Planetarium

But who were the Maya, really? In the 1500s when the Conquistadores arrived in the New World, they came looking for gold, land, and other riches. After colonization they brought religion in the form of Roman Catholicism, and in time, there was a fusion of the old and new worlds. The Maya soon became immersed in the Spanish Empire.

Even though the Olmec are not considered Maya, they did influence the Maya people as they developed and perfected their spectacular architecture of step-pyramids and sacred buildings, beautiful artwork and pottery, and a complicated mathematical and astronomical numerical system.

IMG_1816A Mayan step pyramid

There are three different periods of the Maya culture: The Pre-Classic period (c.1700 BC-250 AD), the Classic period (250-900 AD) and the Post-Classic (900 AD-1546/1697 AD) period.

Pre-Classic Period Maya were modest farmers whose primary crops were corn, squash and beans grown in their gardens. Their houses were mud-covered with thatch roofs.

In the Classical Period, complex cities, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and timekeeping developed. The collapse of the Maya towards the 8th and 9th Century AD left many cities abandoned, while others continued. What incited the Maya’s downfall — and how some cities survived while others fell — remains a mystery. Some hypothesize drought, natural disasters, famine, plagues, disease or possibly war.

Tulum Temple of MuralsThe Tulum Temple of Murals

Post-Classical Period cities in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and in the Highlands of Guatemala, like Chichen Itza, still flourish. It was also during this time that the Maya people started using a simpler timekeeping version of the Mayan Calendar.

Did you know how that the same ancient calendar that has us stockpiling for the apocalypse also helped Mayan babies get their names?

The day a baby was born on the Sacred Calendar would also be their first name. A child’s full name was a combination of the Sacred and Solar Calendar. If you are curious about what your name would have been, there is a kiosk located in our Hall of the Americas where you can enter your date of birth and discover your Mayan name.

See the Eighth Wonder of the World in Style

aerial-view-terra-cotta-warriorsAlthough different lists vary slightly, there are seven wonders of the ancient world. The Great Pyramids at Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

Discovered in 1974, the Terra Cotta Soldiers of Xi’an have been dubbed the Eighth – and with good reason. They’re absolutely stunning to behold in person. 

All of the soldiers that make up this new Wonder are located between 6,000 and 8,000 thousand miles away from Houston (the statue of Zeus at Olympia is the closest, at approximately 6,260 miles away), and are fairly inaccessible if you want to see something fantastic by the end of the week.

However, the Houston Museum of Natural Science has brought the Eighth Wonder of the World to your own backyard. Come see the largest group of Terra Cotta artifacts to ever leave China in our exhibit, the Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor, on display until October 18, 2009.

dsc_0394And, this Thursday night, we offer an exclusive VIP event. View the exhibit at your own pace, question our very own Dirk Van Tuerenhout and enjoy cultural performances such as dragon dancers. Dine on Chinese appetizers and enjoy a cash bar as you peruse the Eigth Wonder of the World in style.

Terra Cotta VIP Event – Thursday, August 13, 2009
6 pm – 9 pm Don’t miss out – get your tickets now!

Mock Mummification

* Walk Like An Egyptian *
Creative Commons License photo credit: pareeerica

We will be having an educator overnight soon at the HMNS – these events allow teachers to come in after hours and learn new activities to do in their classrooms with students. Teachers are also able to wander around our exhibit halls, have a catered dinner, and watch a planetarium show. Today I thought I would share with you one of the classroom projects for our Mummies, Tombs and Catacombs Educator overnight happening in April. (Teachers – you can sign up now at

Bendable action figure
Paper clips
Small heart sticker
Red food coloring
Scented oil
Udjat eye stickers – find an Udjat Eye design and print it on label paper
Paper plates
Black Sharpies
Paper towels

1. Get a parent to help you (this only applies for kids.)

2. Talk about the different steps that took place during mummification. You may want to check out the book Mummies Made in Egypt by Aliki. You can find it at your local library.

3. Now it’s your turn to make a mummy! Grab an action figure and place it on a paper plate.

4. Get a small amount of water and a Q-tip. This represents water from the Nile River. The dead were first washed with water from the Nile. Dip a Q-tip in the water and use it to “wash” your mummy. Then, dry it with a paper towel. Save the towel. You will need it later.

5. Now it’s time to remove the organs from the body. Organs contain a lot of water, so they must be removed in order to preserve the body. Take your paper clip and bend it into a hook shape. This is the shape of the instrument used to remove the brain from the head. The embalmers inserted it through the nose. The brain was considered a filler for the head (kind of like stuffing) and not important, so it was discarded. Pretend to remove the brain using the hook you made.

Egyptian Embalming Urns
Creative Commons License photo credit: mamamusings

6. Next you need to remove the viscera from the body. A cut was made into the left side of the mummy using an obsidian blade (Use a black Sharpie marker to draw a line on the left-hand side of the abdomen); it was from here that the internal organs were removed. Four of the organs were taken out and embalmed separately. The liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines were embalmed and placed in separate jars called canopic jars to be entombed with the mummy. The heart was left in place inside the body. They believed the heart controlled thoughts and emotions and served as the place where memories were stored. The mummy would need to keep its heart. Place your heart sticker on the mummy’s chest.

7. The body was then covered in something like salt called natron. It took 40 days for the body to dry out. The natron was changed often. Sprinkle your mummy with salt to simulate the natron.

8. When the body was dried out it was washed again using palm wine. Wash off the figure using water dyed red (palm wine). Pat you’re the body dry with a paper towel.

9. The body was then stuffed with aromatic spices and resins. This made the body smell at least a little more pleasant. Use a drop of scented oil on your body to make it smell nice.

10. The incision in the side will need to be protected. Place your Udjat Eye sticker over the incision on the left hand side of the abdomen.

11. Next comes the resin. Resin was made from tree sap and was painted on the body to make it waterproof. Paint the body from head to toe with a light coat of Elmer’s glue. You may use your finger to do this.

12. Next are the amulets. Amulets are carved figures that are thought to have magical powers. The most important amulet for the mummy was a large scarab that was placed over the heart to provide protection. Place a sequin over your mummy’s heart to act as the heart scarab.

13. Next, the bandages. Mummies were wrapped with linen bandages. Linen is made from flax, which is similar to cotton. Take a length of cotton gauze and wrap your mummy from head to toe.

14. Now you have your own mummy! Maybe you can make a sarcophagus to hold your mummy!