Published: April 2005
Abydos
New evidence shows that, human sacrifice helped populate the royal city of the dead.
By John Galvin

King Aha, "The Fighter," was not killed while unifying the Nile's two warring kingdoms, nor while building the capital of Memphis. No, one legend has it that the first ruler of a united Egypt was killed in a hunting accident after a reign of 62 years, unceremoniously trampled to death by a rampaging hippopotamus. News of his demise brought a separate, special terror to his staff. For many, the honor of serving the king in life would lead to the more dubious distinction of serving the king in death.

On the day of Aha's burial a solemn procession made its way through the sacred precincts of Abydos, royal necropolis of Egypt's first kings. Led by priests in flowing white gowns, the funeral retinue included the royal family, vizier, treasurer, administrators, trade and tax officers, and Aha's successor, Djer. Just beyond the town's gates the procession stopped at a monumental structure with imposing brick walls surrounding an open plaza. Inside the walls the priests waded through a cloud of incense to a small chapel, where they performed cryptic rites to seal Aha's immortality.

Outside, situated around the enclosure's walls, were six open graves. In a final act of devotion, or coercion, six people were poisoned and buried along with wine and food to take into the afterlife. One was a child of just four or five, perhaps the king's beloved son or daughter, who was expensively furnished with ivory bracelets and tiny lapis beads.

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.

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).

"The boats are like the servants who were buried at Abydos," says O'Connor. "The king intended to use t hem in the afterlife in the same manner that he used them before his death." In life the boats enabled the king to travel rapidly up and down the Nile in a powerful display of wealth and military might. As the Egyptian kings also expected to be kings in the afterlife, the boats would be useful tools.

News of the boats'discovery rippled through the Egyptology world and also energized O'Connor's hunt for the lost enclosures of the first kings. To help focus the search, O'Connor and Adams sought out Tomasz Herbich, a Polish archaeologist who specializes in finding buried ruins with a device called a fluxgate gradiometer, a type of magnetometer. It measures slight variations in the Earth's magnetic field caused by certain types of iron oxides beneath the surface. "These oxides are present in Nile mud," explains Herbich. "And what's the main material used by ancient Egyptian builders? Sun-dried bricks made of Nile mud!"

For nearly a week in 2001 Herbich's assistant walked more than ten miles (16 kilometers) a day over a numbing grid, taking over 80,000 measurements. The survey turned up several small funerary chapels but no enclosures. Then, during Herbich's last hour in the field, his magnetic divining rod finally found royal mud. He downloaded the data onto his laptop, and as the digital map came into focus, he called out, "We have an enclosure!"

Adams and a small crew went to work uncovering part of the enclosure, but the field season was ending, and they had to rebury it and return home. In 2002 O'Connor again asked Adams to go to Abydos, this time to undertake a massive excavation of the new discovery.

After a month of tediously peeling back layers of sand, Adams uncovered jars and wine stoppers bearing Aha's name, confirming that his lost funerary enclosure was at last found.

Once the crew reached the enclosure's floor, they discovered six surrounding graves. Three contained the bodies of adult women, one held the remains of a man, and one held a young child with 25 ivory bracelets embellished with tiny lapis beads. The sixth grave remains unexcavated. In each case the archaeological evidence pointed to a sacrificial death.

"The graves were dug and lined with bricks, then roofed with wood and capped with mud-brick masonry," says Adams. "Above that masonry cap, a plaster floor extends out from the enclosure and covers all the graves." The floor extension is seamless-an important clue, for it would have been impossible to entomb people under the floor except all at the same time.

It's unlikely that 41 people-the six at Aha's enclosure plus 35 at his tomb-would have died of natural causes at the same time. Another possibility is that they died randomly over time and were then stockpiled and reburied en masse. But for O'Connor and Adams, the evidence strongly suggests they were sacrificed.

How were they killed? Petrie believed that he saw signs of post-burial movement in the tomb graves, suggesting that people were alive or semiconscious when buried. Brenda Baker, a physical anthropologist from Arizona State University, examined all the skeletons from Aha's enclosure and found no signs of trauma. "The method of their demise is still a mystery," says Adams. "My guess is that they were drugged."

Or strangled, suggests Nancy Lovell, a physical anthropologist at the University of Alberta. Lovell studied skulls from Aha's tomb and found telltale stains inside the victims' teeth. "When someone is strangled," she explains, "increased blood pressure can cause blood cells inside the teeth to rupture and stain the dentin, the part of the tooth just under the enamel."

It now seems clear that human sacrifice was practiced in early Egypt-as was true in other parts of the ancient world. Sir Leonard Woolley's excavation during the 1920s and '30s at Ur in modern-day Iraq revealed hundreds of sacrificial graves dating back to 2500 b.c. and related to the burial of Mesopotamian kings and queens. Evidence for sacrifice has also been seen in Nubian, Mesoamerican, and several other ancient cultures.

In Egypt enthusiasm for the grim practice seems to have waned quickly. Aha's subsidiary graves are the earliest to be found, and his successor, Djer, embraced the practice with fervor-more than 300 graves flank his tomb, and another 269 surround his mortuary enclosure. But Qaa, the last ruler of the 1st dynasty, had fewer than 30 sacrificial graves beside his tomb, although his enclosure remains lost. And by the 2nd dynasty the practice simply stopped.

O'Connor thinks it ended because the royal staff rebelled. "People tend to say that the Egyptians were becoming more civilized and that's why it stopped, but I think that reflects our own prejudices. These graves included relatively high-ranking people, and the reason it stopped might be more political than ethical." Perhaps it was an honor to serve the king in the afterlife, but it was an honor that could wait.

By the 3rd dynasty Egypt's pharaohs began building their tombs more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) downstream at Saqqara. There, a new tradition arose: The separate tomb and enclosure were combined into a single complex that included a colossal pyramid tomb bounded by the walls of a ceremonial enclosure. The royal necropolis at Abydos lay abandoned for the next 700 years.

Then during the Middle Kingdom the cult of Osiris became a major force in Egyptian religion. Legend held that Osiris, lord of the afterlife, was also Egypt's first king, and so pharaohs dispatched priests to Abydos on a kind of archaeological expedition to locate Osiris's tomb. They excavated several of the 1st-dynasty tombs and ultimately decided that Djer's belonged to Osiris. In so doing they turned Abydos into the mecca of ancient Egypt. Over the next 2,000 years several pharaohs, including Senusret III and Ramses II, built great monuments and temples at Abydos to honor Osiris. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, farmers and pharaohs alike, made the pilgrimage to take part in an annual celebration of Osiris's resurrection. The festival culminated in an elaborate parade that wound from the town past a series of small chapels built to honor the god-king, then up a dry riverbed to the ancient desert cemetery.

Arriving at Osiris's tomb, the pilgrims had no inkling that hundreds of their ancestors-royal staff members sacrificed more than a thousand years earlier-lay buried beneath their feet. Seeking Osiris's blessing for their own passage to the afterlife, the worshippers brought millions of small clay offering pots filled with fruit and smoldering incense. You can still see the potsherds today, piled high like so many hopes that in the wake of death comes eternal life.