The procession then walked westward into the setting sun, crossing sand dunes and moving up a dry riverbed to a remote cemetery at the base of a high desert plateau. Here Aha's three-chambered tomb was stockpiled with provisions for a lavish life in eternity. There were large cuts of ox meat, freshly killed waterbirds, loaves of bread, cheese, dried figs, jars of beer, and dozens of wine vessels, each bearing Aha's official seal. Beside his tomb more than 30 graves were laid out in three neat rows. As the ceremony climaxed, several lions were slain and placed in a separate burial pit. As Aha's body was lowered into a brick-lined burial chamber, a select group of loyal courtiers and servants also took poison and joined their king in the next world.
Is this how a pharaoh's funeral in 2900 b.c. actually unfolded? It's a plausible scenario, experts say. Archaeologists have been sifting through the dry sands of Abydos for more than a century. Now they have found compelling evidence that ancient Egyptians indeed engaged in human sacrifice, shedding new—and not always welcome—light on one of the ancient world's great civilizations.
"Yellah! Yellah! Yellah!" barks Ibrahim Mohammed Ali, the Egyptian crew boss, spurring his workers to move it, move it, move it. "You are big fat water buffalo! You are dung!" The mostly teenage boys hauling buckets of sand giggle nervously but pick up the pace while keeping an eye on their still ranting foreman. "You chatter worse than a bunch of women!" Standing tall in a loose, flowing galabia and white head wrap, Ibrahim looks somehow wizardly, maybe capable of vaporizing slackers with a cast from the long, intimidating stick-wand he keeps clutched behind his back. Ibrahim's 125-person crew is working with a team of archaeologists to uncover part of the immense royal burial center at Abydos, located 260 miles (420 kilometers) up the Nile from Cairo. As a line of workers use hoe-like tureyas to scrape away the sand, the so-named bucket boys haul away clanking pails of dirt and pour it like water into the laps of sifters. Excavators are on the ground with trowels in hand, surveyors are plotting the coordinates of artifacts, a photographer is documenting each new find, and illustrators are pencil-drawing an ancient coffin and an infant skeleton.
Kneeling on one knee in the center of this swarm is Matthew Adams, associate director of a multiyear project sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Yale University, and New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. Adams is brushing sand away to reveal a smooth, ancient mud floor. "If this is from the time of Aha," he says in a raspy voice dried out from months in the desert, "then it's the oldest funerary enclosure ever found in Egypt. We're talking about the beginning of Egyptian history. Not one trowel has been laid here before now."
Abydos is the source of many of Egypt's most ancient artifacts. In 1988 Günter Dreyer, a German archaeologist, unearthed small bone and ivory tags intricately inscribed with one of the world's earliest forms of writing—crude hieroglyphs developed at about the same time as Mesopotamian cuneiform. In 1991 Adams's mentor and the project's director, David O'Connor, uncovered an eerie fleet of wooden boats buried in enormous brick-lined graves.