An eternity of social distinction
A neglected site at Deir Al-Bersha in Middle Egypt is undergoing scientific study for the first time. Jill Kamil takes stock of the situation
"The world famous scene of the transportation of a monolithic statue from the quarries at Hatnub, east of Tel Al-Amarna, to Deir Al-Bersha is reproduced in almost every book on ancient Egypt. Yet most people are unaware that the statue's destination was this relatively little known burial ground in the Eastern Desert," said Harco Willems, professor of Egyptology and director of the Belgian archaeological mission at work at the site of Al-Bersha. At a lecture at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute last month he voiced the opinion that publicity for the site is long overdue.
"Few of the people who admire the marvellously decorated Middle Kingdom coffins in the Egyptian Museum realise that they come from this site," he said.
The site is not easy to access. Lying between Beni Hassan and Tel Al-Amarna, it was chosen as their burial ground by the overlords of the "Hare nome", whose capital Ashmunein was in a direct line across the river. Here, massive elevations are interspersed with dried out riverbeds. The largest is Wadi Al-Nakhla, which breaks through the cliffs and runs in a southeasterly direction. Others are Wadi Al- Bersha and Wadi Gamusa, and in the midst of these barren areas lie the ruins of ancient structures.
The archaeological project launched here in 1994 by the Catholic University of Leuven is yielding interesting results. Far from being solely a Middle Kingdom burial ground as was generally believed, there is evidence that it contains monuments from the Old Kingdom through the Late Period of Egyptian history. There are also indications of occupation by Coptic hermits early in the Christian era.
Willems described the results of the work so far carried out by the Belgian team as particularly rewarding, especially over the last two seasons. "Our aim is not to investigate individual tombs so much as to study burial grounds in general, as well as their relationship one to the other, in order to gain a broader understanding of the entire region," he said. "Ours is a comprehensive study of a huge site that is not well known, and we are carrying out research into different phases of development with the aim of gaining a broader understanding of a whole range of monuments."
The mission is primarily concerned with an area that has been largely unexcavated, and which reveals continued use over successive dynasties. Willems made particular mention of the Old Kingdom cemeteries, and of the new evidence on First Intermediate Period rock tombs, Middle Kingdom tombs and mastabas -- "about which nothing serious has ever been published" -- and structures in the Second Intermediate Period -- "in which usurped stone from earlier structures were used".
"One of the surprises was evidence of a large Second Intermediate Period cemetery comprising more than 100 rock tombs with shafts which we have only just begun to investigate," Willems said. He stressed that none of these had been scientifically examined until his team started work on them in April this year.
Lying as it does between two well known archaeological sites -- Beni Hassan with its famous Middle Kingdom tombs to the north and Tel Al-Amarna, the sun city of Akhenaten, to the south -- Al-Bersha attracts little attention today.
However, things were different in the nineteenth century after two British naval officers, Captain Mangles and Lieutenant Irby, visited the area and first described to the modern world the famous scene of the colossus on a sledge (see box). The painting served as a magnet to draw visitors to this out-of-the-way place, but unfortunately such people wreaked havoc on the tomb, wantonly cutting away the important inscriptions behind the relief of the colossus and mutilating other parts of it.
Willems said the British Egyptologist and botanist Percy Edward Newberry deserves much of the credit for the work in the area. Newberry worked for the Egypt Exploration Fund (later Society) in its initial stages and, because of his botanical knowledge, he was able to assist Flinders Petrie when he was excavating at Hawara and Kahun. "He carried out his first independent work at Beni Hassan and Al-Bersha between 1890 and 1894, and he drew up a plan of the area where the Middle Kingdom tombs were located," Willems said.
"Over a three-month period we concentrated our work in a small area, re-excavating some of these tombs and carrying out an epigraphical survey."
In-depth study of the Middle Kingdom burial grounds has been particularly rewarding. "The mission has come up with some interesting facts," Willems said. The archaeologists have found, for example, that people buried near the side of the road in one cemetery were clearly privileged members of the community, able to build large, well-constructed limestone tombs for which they used imported wood. Deeper in the wadi (valley) the team found more modest tombs of the same period, while the tomb of the governor, the most important member of the community, was constructed in a prime location at the top of a ridge.
Willems explained that the once-imposing rock tombs of Al-Bersha must have been similar to those of Beni Hassan, with a portico, an architrave supported by a pair of columns, a decorated inner chamber and the shrine to the rear. However, they had been totally demolished by ancient quarrymen.
"Limestone was just hewn out by stone masons, destroying the beautiful decorations. Then the roof collapsed, leaving a mass of debris." Tunnels had been made into the hills, and the quarrymen left only a few supports. "None of the architecture can be discerned today," he said.
Willems explained that apart from the locations of tombs for people of different social strata in the Middle Kingdom, and their relationship one to the other, there were structural differences in the tombs as well as in the funerary equipment, which all points to a highly diversified society. "Quality jewellery was found in the burial equipment in the tombs of the wealthy in the prime location, while the objects in the tombs of poorer people to the rear were more modest," he said.
A vast area remains to be excavated at Al- Bersha. Apart from Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period rock tombs, and the above- mentioned Middle Kingdom rock and mastaba tombs (some of which were re-used in later times), more needs to be learned about the stone quarry exploitation in the area between the New Kingdom and the Late Period -- which carried on as late as the Pharaoh Nectanebo I in the fourth century BC -- and about the occupation of some of the tombs by Coptic hermits.
Willems said the quarries are fascinating, not only for the vast quantity of demotic inscriptions that have survived and which remain to be studied, but also because, although some of the quarries are in isolated positions, some were carved out in the rock tombs of the Middle Kingdom.
When the governor's tomb was found in 1988 it was in a precarious condition, but although the walls had been undermined they were still standing. The team is attempting to restore the tomb, which was in such a fragile condition that stabilisation was necessary as a first step. What has so far been revealed is an imposing chapel faced with columns.
"In front of the tomb we came across a remarkable discovery: a row of small tombs made for those who had worked for the governor," Willems said. "No doubt they wished to be buried as near to their wealthy employer as possible in order to be assured of continued security under his protection in the afterlife."
Facsimile of the famous scene from a wall painting in the tomb of Djehutihotep, who lived in the reigns of the Middle Kingdom Pharaohs Amenemhet II, Senusert II and Senusert III (c. 1932-1842 BC), showing his huge monolithic statue being transported from the quarries. It is described as being made of alabaster ("stone from Hatnub") and 13 cubits (more than five metres) high, and can be compared to the famous scene from Sennecherib's palace in Babylon of the transportation of a colossal winged human-headed bull. Both provide evidence of the simple but effective methods of transportation in ancient times.
The seated figure on the throne, all white except for the head-dress and the artificial beard, is secured on a sledge by which it is being transported. Twisted ropes are kept from chafing the stone by pads of ox skin, and on the knees of the statue stands a figure who, by clapping his hands, gives the beat for the men to tug the sledge.
In front of the statue is a priest with a censer blessing the figure. First come four rows of workmen, 43 men in each, hauling four cables which are fixed to the front of the sledge. Groups of workmen and officials accompany the statue, and at the top of the scene joyous people with branches in their hands advance to meet the procession. Djehutihotep himself follows his statue on foot together with his three sons and attendants. Then follows a long passage describing the event which was fortunately transliterated before its destruction in the early nineteenth century. The artist who decorated the tomb, and who features on this painted relief, is titled "Lector, mummy-painter, decorator of this tomb ... Ameni-ankhu".