The American Research Center in Eygpt

Featured Expeditions & AEF Projects

Featured Expeditions & AEF Projects

Abydos: Archaeological Field Research Project

Director: David O'Connor

Updated August 2013

The Abydos Project of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, David O’Connor, Director, Matthew Adams, Associate Director/Field Director, is engaged in a multi-dimensional program of long-term archaeological field research focusing on major components of the core of ancient Abydos.

The excavated remains of the ritual enclosure of king Aha of Dynasty 1.  The walls of the enclosure were deliberately demolished anciently, leaving only the lowest masonry courses in place, perhaps a kind of ritual burial of the monument.  Photo: Robert Fletcher for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

In recent years a primary aim of the project has been the systematic investigation of a series of mysterious monumental cultic buildings constructed by Egypt’s first kings on a low desert terrace overlooking the ancient town.  Although some of these monuments have been known for many years, they remained little investigated and not well understood.  The IFA project’s excavations have generated much new information and a greatly enhanced understanding of the nature and use of the early royal enclosures at Abydos, including a number previously unknown.  

All the monuments appear to have followed a similar architectural template, with a massive enclosure wall defining an interior ritual precinct that was open to the sky.  The enclosures belonging to First Dynasty kings were surrounded by the graves of courtiers and retainers, as were the contemporary royal tombs.  The IFA excavations resulted in the discovery of the first new such graves in nearly a century and provided an opportunity for the standards of modern archaeology to be applied to the intriguing questions of who the occupants of these graves were and why they were buried at the royal enclosure.  

Conservator Sanchita Balachandran and bioarchaeologist Dr. Brenda Baker excavating one of the graves of the enclosure of king Aha, that of a small child, whose legs and feet were preserved in situ on the grave’s cobble floor.  Photo: Jodi Waldron for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

IFA work has also resulted in the discovery that some of these early monuments were accompanied by other kinds of burials, not those of human beings.  In one case, ten not yet fully domesticated donkeys were buried

Remains of four of the fourteen Early Dynastic boat graves found at Abydos.  Photo: Robert Fletcher for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.


together next to a royal enclosure, and in another, a fleet of fourteen large wooden boats, each encased in a boat-shaped brick grave structure.  New evidence for the ritual use of the enclosures has been found, including huge deposits of pottery and other offering material generated by – and providing an archaeological window on – the nature of the performance of cult that once took place in them.  

Intriguingly, recent work has revealed strong evidence that, with but one exception, each of the royal enclosures was deliberately demolished after only a short period of use, perhaps a sort of ritual burial for translation to the next world to be accessible to the dead king there. They are likely to have been built to serve as the primary visible, monumental component of each king’s two-part funerary complex at the site, which consisted of the underground tomb proper, situated at a more remote desert location some 1.5km away, and the monumental ritual enclosure, elevated above the adjacent town and highly visible from the Nile alluvial plain.

The Abydos enclosures represent an important stage in the development of royal monumental expression that culminated in the pyramid complexes that were quintessential to Egyptian kingship just a few generations later.  In fact, key design features of the Abydos enclosures were incorporated into the earliest pyramid complexes, those of Third Dynasty kings at Saqqara.  In its ongoing investigation of the Abydos enclosures, the IFA project is exploring the first royal monumental building tradition in Egypt and the emergence of the monumental architectural vocabulary that helped define how kingship was expressed.

The ritual enclosure of king Khasekhemwy of Dynasty 2, the only one of the Abydos royal enclosures to survive as a standing monument.  The excavated corner of the demolished enclosure of Khasekhemwy’s predecessor Peribsen is visible in the right foreground.  Photo: Robert Fletcher for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

Of all the early royal enclosures at Abydos, only one is still standing today, the last built at the site.  It was the largest and by far the most massive of these monuments and belonged to king Khasekhemwy of the Second Dynasty (ca. 2750 BCE), who was also the last early king to be buried at Abydos.  A major initiative of the IFA Abydos project is the preservation of this unique structure, through a comprehensive program of architectural conservation, undertaken together with the systematic archaeological investigation and documentation of the structure and its history.  This conservation initiative is conducted with the approval and under the general supervision of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.  The Ministry has recognized the unique importance of this early royal monument, and the IFA Abydos Project is honored to be permitted to make this contribution to the preservation of an extraordinary part of Egypt’s cultural heritage.  Work to date has been made possible by a series of grants from ARCE’s Egyptian Antiquities Project (EAP), Egyptian Antiquities Conservation (EAC), and Antiquities Endowment Fund (AEF) programs, with funding provided by USAID.

Most conservation measures at the Khasekhemwy monument involve using newly fabricated mud bricks to fill and stabilize areas of missing ancient masonry.  Photo: Robert Fletcher for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU/ARCE.

A systematic condition assessment at the start of this initiative revealed that major sections of the monument were at risk of catastrophic structural failure, and many other serious condition problems were identified. Without intervention, much of the monument that has remarkably survived for nearly 5000 years – like all the Abydos enclosures, it was built of mud bricks – would be lost.  Undertaken in collaboration with preservation architects, the project’s conservation program seeks to identify and address the serious structural and other condition problems that threaten the survival of the enclosure. Conservation interventions use primarily traditional materials, mud bricks and mortar, and building techniques to replace sections of missing original masonry, thereby stabilizing the original fabric of the adjacent parts of the walls.

The stabilization of the west gateway of the Khasekhemwy enclosure included the reconstruction of the gateway opening, which allowed new masonry to be added to support the upper parts of the adjacent original wall.  Photo: Greg Maka for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

The large team involved in this project includes Egyptian consultants and specialists, as well as a large group of skilled Egyptian workers, including the craftsmen who fabricate the thousands of new bricks required, and masons, who use these bricks in repairs to the walls.  Their combined efforts replicate superbly the appearance of the still surviving ancient brickwork, although close inspection allows the new work to be easily distinguished.  The conservation program does not aim to restore the monument to its original Second Dynasty appearance; rather, the aim is to stabilize and preserve the monument as it is, the result of its nearly 5000 year history.  To date more than 500,000 new mud bricks have been fabricated on-site and used in the conservation effort, which is approximately 65% complete.

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