One might think that the archaeological treasures of ancient Egypt have been pretty much picked over by now. Of all the civilizations that have graced the pages of archaeological romance, ancient Egypt stands arguably on top. For thousands of years, tomb robbers have looted it, and since the 18th century, archaeologists have systematically pored over the remains. Thus it could be said that this field has already seen its heyday.
But for Professor Donald Redford and Dr. Susan Redford of Pennsylvania State University, like other scholars in their field, it offers a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new finds and surprises that continue to excite the imagination of would-be Egyptologists and archaeologists.
For the past two decades, they have directed expeditions to two separate ancient locations in Egypt, one near the west bank of the Nile in the Valley of the Nobles, part of the Theban necropolis opposite Luxor, and the other much farther to the north in the Nile Delta region. Both locations have yielded discoveries that have made archaeology news headlines and have created new questions and avenues of investigation.
Work in the Valley of the Nobles began for Susan Redford in 1988, when she was granted a concession by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities to clear, record and publish three tombs. All three tombs were considered historically important, but one tomb has stood out from the others and has commanded most of her time and efforts -- tomb no. 188, that of Parennefer, the royal butler of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten. Located in an area adjacent to Queen Hatshepsut’s temple complex at Deir el-Bahri, Redford spent eight field seasons documenting the decorated walls of Parennefer’s tomb chapel by photographing and producing facsimile drawings of the scenes, including conservation and stabilization of the paintings and structure itself. In the process, her team also cleared five shafts and associated burial crypts discovered within the area of the tomb. Before too long, the project had expanded westward, well beyond the limits of the original Theban Tomb 188 investigation. The newly revealed shafts in Parennefer’s tomb eventually led to the discovery of four other previously unknown monuments. "As anyone who works in the Theban necropolis can tell you," says Redford, "one single tomb concession can quite suddenly and unexpectedly broaden. The necropolis is a virtual rabbits warren of tomb shafts and ancient robbers’ tunnels that intersect with each other and communicate with unknown interments and often undiscovered tombs buried under slope debris."
If the recent past is any measure, there is much more to come.
Says Redford: "Despite the systematic plundering of the Theban necropolis which continued up to modern times, there is still a tremendous quantity of artifacts from these ancient burials left to be retrieved, as well as human remains........Among the types of items collected from our last field season (2010), in which we initiated the clearance of the slope to the immediate west of Parennefer’s tomb, were canopic jars (which once held the organs of the deceased), fragments of painted coffins, pieces of stringed beaded nets and collars, numerous funerary cones inscribed with the names of the deceased, shawabtis (small Osiride figurines of the deceased), amulets, statue fragments and decorated blocks removed from the walls of nearby tomb chapels. Two of the most exciting finds that were recovered were the remains of a cedar coffin with a finely-carved facial mask, and a beautiful, limestone relief showing the head and elaborate hairstyle of Parennefer’s wife, which had been removed by robbers from the reveal of his tomb’s entrance passage."
Redford and her team hope to continue the clearance operation during the upcoming 2012 summer expedition, exposing the ancient courtyards of the tombs and revealing and exploring more hidden tombs that she believes will likely be found.
The Mendes Expedition
Farther north in the eastern Nile Delta region, anciently a part of "Lower Egypt", noted scholar Professor Donald Redford leads an investigation of an ancient Egyptian capital. Situated midway between Cairo and the Mediterranean coast, the city boasts a history of nearly 5,000 years, elements of which continue to exist in the modern villages near the ruin mound. Ancient Mendes, or modern-day Tel el-Rub'a, was the capital of ancient Egypt during the fourth century B.C.E., the time of the 29th Dynasty. One of the largest cities of the Ancient Near East, it was a major trade center, in contact with ancient Rome, Greece, and cities of the eastern Mediterranean. Here, Professor Redford and his team have uncovered evidence of human occupation since c. 4000 B.C., including the period of state creation, the advent of complex society and the invention of hieroglyphic script in about 3100 B.C. Indeed, his team has recovered very early texts illustrating the evolution of writing in Egypt. Evidence of Old Kingdom presence has been found through recovery of flora and faunal remains that reveal the types of plant cover, land use and animal population over the time period. But excavated remains also show that the city witnessed an abrupt, temporary cessation of occupation shortly after 2200 B.C. (confirmed by Carbon-14 dating), when the inhabitants were massacred and fire destroyed their temple. Rebuilt during the second millennium B.C., the city featured a large, processional temple fronted by two pylons and a long approach flanked by subsidiary temples. Excavations have also uncovered evidence of several harbors, along with storehouses filled with pottery that indicated trade in perfumes and wine. Mendes was recognized throughout the classical world for its perfumes.
Not the least of the discoveries, the Mendes expedition is also noted for uncovering an important royal tomb. "The tomb of the founder of this (29th) Dynasty, Neferites I (399-393 B.C.), was discovered by our expedition in 1993," says Redford. "Sadly it was not intact. Neferites had been a freedom-fighter, instrumental in liberating Egypt from the yoke of the Persian empire; and when, in 343 B.C. the Persians succeeded in reconquering Egypt, they made a point of destroying his tomb."
Much more needs to be done. In the upcoming summer season of 2012, Redford plans to clear and partially restore a temple built by Amasis, who ruled from 569 to 526 B.C. He also plans to excavate houses dated to the period 2300-2200 B.C.
Says Redford, "Mendes is a cross section of Egyptian history. With no villages built over the ruins, it is completely open to our exploration. A fascinating agenda of investigation remains to be acted upon: urbanism in a Lower Egyptian setting, town planning, the distribution of economies, house lay-out........all these themes beckon enticingly!"