Now O'Connor and Adams are digging down into the beginning of Egypt's 1st dynasty, a pivotal period when kings laid down the roots of religion, government, and architecture that would last for the next 3,000 years. Unlike the colossal pyramids of later pharaohs, the more modest burial complexes of the Abydos kings consisted of two separate structures—a tomb and a ceremonial enclosure. The large, walled enclosures where mortuary rituals were performed were situated on the edge of town, while the underground tombs were located more than a mile away on the threshold of the desolate Western Desert, a place known to ancient Egyptians as the land of the dead.
All of the 1st-dynasty tombs and most of the enclosures excavated so far are accompanied by subsidiary graves—hundreds in some cases—containing the remains of elite officials and courtiers. Egyptologists have long speculated that these graves might hold victims of sacrifice but also acknowledged that they could simply be graves reserved for the king's staff, ready to use as each person died naturally.
The question of whether ancient Egyptians practiced human sacrifice has intrigued archaeologists since the late 1800s. Frenchman Émile Amélineau and his English rival Sir Flinders Petrie excavated all the 1st-dynasty desert tombs by 1902. Each had been heavily looted in antiquity, and no royal remains were found except a single bejeweled arm. Still, there was much yet to discover. In Aha's tomb were the remains of dozens of wine vessels, tools, some jewelry, and signs of food. Beside the tomb Petrie discovered 35 subsidiary graves, which he called the Great Cemetery of the Domestics. While he didn't dwell on it in his published papers, he hinted at human sacrifice. Later, in the 1980s, German archaeologists uncovered the remains of at least seven young lions.
The only funerary enclosure standing during Petrie's time was the massive 4,600-year-old Shunet el-Zebib, built by the 2nd-dynasty king Khasekhemwy. The towering shuneh (storehouse), with its three-story walls enclosing nearly two acres of space, still dominates the landscape. Two of Petrie's associates discovered another 2nd-dynasty enclosure, built by King Peribsen, and Petrie returned in the 1920s and found hundreds of subsidiary graves. The graves surrounded three 1st-dynasty enclosures, but curi-ously, Petrie located only one of them. These discoveries led archaeologists to speculate that they had found only half the puzzle of Abydos, and that for each tomb they had uncovered out in the desert, there should be a corresponding enclosure still hidden on the city's edge.
In 1967 David O'Connor came to Abydos to search for, among other things, the funerary enclosures that had eluded Petrie. Almost 20 years later, while digging in the shadow of the shuneh, he made a totally unexpected discovery.
"I opened an excavation pit, and poking into one corner of it was this intrusion," O'Connor recalls. "I knew it was something from the earliest dynasty, I just didn't know what." To O'Connor's amazement, the "intrusion" turned out to be one of 14 ancient boats, each buried in its own brick-lined tomb adjacent to the enclosure of a still unknown king. The boats, which measured up to 75 feet (23 meters) long, were expertly crafted and had been fully functional when buried. They proved to be the world's oldest surviving boats built of planks (as opposed to those made of reeds or hollowed-out logs).