Published: April 2005
Did You Know?
In Did You Know? the National Geographic magazine team shares extra information we gathered to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects.

Early archaeology at Abydos was very different from the painstaking scraping and sifting done today—for millennia it was more of a treasure hunt than a science. Ancient Egyptians themselves plundered the tombs of their forefathers, knowing that where kings were buried they would find gold, silver, and jewels. Early Western archaeologists were no better. In 1895 Frenchman Émile Amélineau was granted an exclusive multiyear contract to dig at Abydos by the director of the Eygptian Antiquities Service. Amélineau took this as free rein to do what he wanted and take what he wished. Apparently he had little regard for anything that wasn't an intact, impressive, marketable object (of which he found many, notably a large statue of Osiris on his bier), and he discarded many piles of objects that would be considered treasures today. He is said to have even boasted of burning ancient 1st-dynasty woodwork on his campfire and smashing artifacts that weren't impressive enough to take away with him.

One of the most curious tales of early archaeology at Abydos is the case of the missing arm. British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, who took over excavations at Abydos in 1899, was a much more careful and methodical digger than Amélineau, and he went back and reexcavated many of Amélineau's sites to document them properly. In the tomb of 1st-dynasty King Djer he found a mummified arm adorned with beautiful gold and jeweled bracelets tucked into a small hole in the wall of the tomb. He thought it was the arm of Djer's queen; others have speculated it might have been the arm of Djer himself, or perhaps just a noble entombed near the king. The truth will never be known. When Petrie dutifully sent the arm, its linen wrappings, and the bracelets to the Cairo museum, the curator cut away the bracelets for display and simply threw away the old arm and linen. As Petrie summed up those times, "a museum is a dangerous place."

—Elizabeth Snodgrass