The recent discovery of the tomb of an ancient Egyptian princess from the Fifth Dynasty has opened a new chapter in the saga of the Abusir necropolis, says Nevine El-Aref
An archaeological mission from the Czech Institute of Egyptology at the Charles University in Prague, who is carrying out routine excavations on the north side of the Abusir necropolis, 30km south of the Giza Plateau, has been taken by surprise with the discovery of an important rock-hewn tomb.
The tomb belonged to a Fifth-Dynasty princess named Sheretnebty, and alongside it were four tombs belonging to high–ranking officials. An era enclosed within a courtyard. The tombs had been robbed in antiquity and no mummies were found inside them.
According to the Czech mission’s archaeological report, a copy of which has been given to Al-Ahram Weekly, traces of the courtyard were first detected in 2010 while archaeologists were investigating a neighbouring mastaba (bench tomb). However, active exploration of the royal tomb was not undertaken until this year, when it was discovered that the ancient Egyptian builders used a natural depression in the bedrock to dig a four-metre-deep tomb almost hidden amidst the mastaba tombs constructed around it on higher ground. Four rock-hewn tombs were also unearthed within the courtyard surrounding the royal tomb.
The north and west walls of the princess’s tomb were cased with limestone blocks, while its south wall was cut in the bedrock. The east wall was also carved in limestone, along with the staircase and slabs descending from north to south.
The courtyard of the tomb has four limestone pillars which originally supported architraves and roofing blocks.
On the tomb’s south side are four pillars engraved with hieroglyphic inscriptions stating: “The king’s daughter of his body, his beloved, revered in front of the great god, Sheretnebty.”
Miroslav Barta, head of the Czech mission, says early investigations have revealed that the owner of the tomb was previously unknown, but that it most probably belonged to the family of a Fifth-Dynasty king. The preliminary date of the structure, based on the stratigraphy of the site and analysis of the name, Barta says, falls in the second half of the Fifth Dynasty. It is surprising that the tomb should not be located in Abusir south, among the tombs of non-royal officials, considering that most members of the Fifth-Dynasty royal family are buried 2km north of Abusir pyramid.
While digging inside Sheretnebty’s tomb, the Czech archaeologists found a corridor that contains the entrances to four rock-hewn tombs of top officials of the Fifth Dynasty.
Barta says two tombs have been completely explored so far. The first belonged to the chief of justice of the great house, Shepespuptah, and the second to Duaptah, the inspector of the palace attendants. Both tombs probably date from the reign of King Djedkare Isesi.
The remaining two are still under excavation, but early investigation reveal that one belonged to the overseer of the scribes of the crews, Nefer, whose false door is still in situ. This tomb has a hidden tunnel in which excavators have unearthed three statues of the owner, one showing the deceased as a scribe.
Mohamed Al-Beyali, head of the ancient Egyptian and Graeco-Roman antiquities section, said that between the entrances to the four tombs the mission unearthed three naoi (sanctuaries) with engaged limestone statues bearing small traces of the original polychromy. The statues, which show excellent quality craftsmanship, depict the features of an unknown man alone, with his son and with his wife and son.
Several fragments of a false door engraved with the various titles and names of princess Sheretnebty were also uncovered.
More statues have been found inside the fourth tomb, which had a hidden tunnel that was blocked with limestone fragments and brown sand. Barta says that although tomb raiders entered the tunnel in antiquity, it seems that they did not appreciate the beauty of the statues and left them buried inside. Regrettably, however, while they were carrying out their activities in the tomb they broke some of the statues into two pieces. Luckily some were found intact. These statues were carved in wood and limestone, and some were found standing in their original position while others rested on the floor.
One of the statues was inscribed with the name of the tomb’s owner who is named as Iti, the inspector of crews. Excavations show that at least nine statues were placed in the tunnel, two carved in wood and the other seven in limestone. Only three statues were in a very good state of preservation.
Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim described the discovery as a new chapter in the history of the Abusir necropolis and Saqqara, since the tomb was discovered in an area midway between Abusir and Saqqara necropolis.
“The exploration of the tombs is not yet complete, but it has already provided us with a lot of information,” Barta says. He adds that both the architecture of the tombs and the remains of their original equipment provide indications about the beliefs, traditions and burial practices of the tombs’ owners, and about ancient Egyptian society, the environment, history and art in the Fifth Dynasty. The discovery of the statues in the corridor next to the princess’s courtyard, in addition to Nefer’s decorated false-door and four statues in his serdab (statue chamber), are unique finds in Abusir south.
“We are very fortunate to have this new window through which we can go back in time and follow and document the step-by-step life and death of several historically important individuals of the great pyramid-age era,” Barta says.
The Czech mission will continue its exploration and documentation work to reveal more about the new collection. The mission from the Charles University in Prague has been working at Abusir since the 1960s, and over the ensuing decades they have explored monuments in the royal necropolis including the pyramid complex of the Fifth-Dynasty King Raneferef, where they discovered an enormous number of objects. South of the pyramids are the tombs of officials, among which they found the courtyard of Sheretnebty.
In the western part of Abusir the mission found shaft tombs dating from the Late Period, including the intact tomb of a priest, Iufaa, which contained a huge sarcophagus containing the mummy and walls covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions recording ancient Egyptian religious beliefs.
Abusir is the Arabic name for the Greek Busiris, which in turn is a rendering of the Ancient Egyptian name Per-Usir, which means The House of Osiris, the god of the dead and resurrection.
The royal interest in Abusir began with the reign of Userkaf, the founder of the Fifth Dynasty, who chose the site to built a remarkable and unique solar temple. Some of his successors built their own burial and solar temples there, the last solar temple being built by King Menkauhor at the end of the dynasty.
The first three pyramids at Abusir, built a couple of hundred of metres south of Userkaf’s Solar Temple, had their northwest corner aligned on the same diagonal. This diagonal is believed to have pointed to Iwnw (Heliopolis), a city on the Nile’s east bank located to the northeast of Memphis and dedicated to the cult of the solar god. Two later royal pyramids were built and break the diagonal alignment.
Several mastabas built for senior courtiers were built among them, one belonging to the royal hairdresser and vizier Ptahshepses.
An important necropolis for the Memphite aristocracy has also been located to the west of the pyramid field. Here there are also tombs dating from the 26th and 27th dynasties, showing that Abusir remained an important funerary site until the end of the Pharaonic era.