Work in progress in Chamber 5, Tomb 26: more bones, pots & some crocodiles

Week 7 of our field season on Sai just ended – and kept us very busy in Tomb 26. After having finished documenting the burial of Khnum-mes and his wife in Chamber 6, we are now concentrating on Chamber 5 – our hidden western chamber, discovered In January. I am delighted that Marlies Wohlschlager arrived earlier this week, working now jointly with Andrea Stadlmayr as the project’s bioarchaeologists on the burials in this part of Tomb 26.

The nicest find from Chamber 5 so far was just taken out today – a small, quite fragile scarab in faience. Its back part has a wonderful decoration pattern showing a lion, a crocodile (which almost looks like a human/prisoner, maybe not a coincidence…) and a snake.

With two amulets in the shape of crocodiles discovered close by at another individual (and, as yet, still left in place), crocodiles seem to have been preferred themes within the funerary equipment of Chamber 5. Since we have not viewed a single living crocodile during this season, really much welcomed!

Valentine’s day compliments from Tomb 26

In honor of Valentine’s day, we thought we would share with you a tribute worthy of Hathor herself.

SAC5 349
L: 8.4cm
W: 6.1cm
H: 2.1cm

As highlighted earlier this week, the burial of Khnum-mes is a treasure trove of Eighteenth Dynasty funerary goods, a period that emphasized quality and artisanship over quantity. Amongst the assemblage is a large stone heart scarab, shaped as a rather abstract beetle. The opposing side is inscribed with Chapter 30 from the Book of the Dead. Though the name of the owner is rarely incorporated into this text, the proximity to the body and similarities to the associated shabti make the identification certain.

We all know that there are few things more romantic than a dung beetle, this is not just a standard heart scarab. In the gap between the upper register and the curved top, an additional inscription has been added. Clearly in a second hand—and rather scruffy for even the standards of heart scarabs—a dedication to the lady of the house has been scratched into the surface. Unfortunately, the name is less clear and the two horizontal lines encompass a number of options. Thus, though the scarab itself appears to belong to the assemblage of Khnum-mes, the naming of his wife quite probably identifies the female body of the chamber (which seems to have been buried slightly later). A married couple, together for eternity. Love memorialized on a dung beetle.

Summary of week 6, field season 2017

Week 6 in Tomb 26 focused on the very nicely equipped burial of Khnum-mes in Chamber 6. Documenting it was getting more and more challenging – it is directly next to the northern wall of the chamber, leaving little space cleaning its northern side and for taking photos for Structure From Motion surface models…

Stone shabti of Khnum-mes in situ.


In addition to his nicely painted coffin and funerary mask and the high-quality stone shabti, Khnum-mes has four stone vessels, two of which are inscribed with his name!

A large-sized scarab just came up yesterday, resting outside the southern side of the now decayed coffin, not yet fully exposed. But like the shabti, this piece is very nicely made and will hopefully give us the name of the deceased. Palaeographic comparisons might even allow some judgement whether these two pieces of mid-18th-Dynasty elite funerary equipment were made in the same workshop…
The second burial in Chamber 6 remained anonymous so far. It had some pottery vessels as burial gifts as well as a nice collection of miniature stone and pottery vessels! Together with Khnum-mes, Chamber 6 yielded a total of 6 stone vessels – quite a considerable amount.

Work in the western Chamber 5 makes very good progress thanks to the efforts by Andrea. However, the situation in the northern part is very difficult. A minimum of 5, possibly more, individuals are buried there below debris, very close to each other and partly superimposing another – a real challenge for cleaning and very time consuming!
Some nice finds were already made in this part of Chamber 5 – a small crocodile amulet and a scarab; more are to be expected in the upcoming week!

An eye for an eye…

As reported, the burials we are currently excavating in Tomb 26 were buried in Egyptian style in wooden coffins – unfortunately, with all the flooding of the chambers little of the wood has survived. We are mostly dealing with “negative” coffins – slightly darker outlines in the flood levels and sometimes decayed wood with traces of pigments. The colors white, blue and yellow are most common – there are also traces of red.
What has survived slightly better, are parts of the funerary masks – and here especially inlays. Already during the French excavations in neighboring tombs in SAC5, eyes of such funerary masks were found (see Minault-Gout/Thill 2012, vol. 1, 166, vol. 2, pl. 88).
In Tomb 26, a very nicely preserved eye pair is associated with the individual whom we can tentatively identify as Khnum-mes thanks to his shabti found last week.

One eye was laying upside-down next to the skull (blue arrow), the other one was found a bit further down the body close to the chest. The first was removed today, in order to continue cleaning the head part of the coffin – and it turned out to be the left one, nicely corresponding to its find location.

Both eyes are perfectly worked – the iris, set into white plaster, is made in a hard, black stone, giving a very natural appearance! Metallic outlines of the eye underline the high quality work of the mask which must have been really stunning when completely preserved.
In addition to Khnum-mes’ funerary mask, we have fragments of at least two more – insha’allah more pieces will turn up in the next days.

Reference
Minault-Gout/Thill 2012 = Minault-Gout, A. and Thill, F. Saï II. Le cimetière des tombes hypogées du Nouvel Empire (SAC5). Fouilles de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire 69. Cairo 2012.

Summary of week 5, Tomb 26

We made very good progress working in Tomb 26 this week. Excavation and cleaning continues in the western, “hidden” Chamber 5 and in the northern, lower Chamber 6.

In Chamber 5, the southern third of the chamber has been cleaned, revealing 2 in situ burials in extended position, oriented East-West. The second burial was badly smashed below debris from the roof and partly covered with collapsed plaster. Ceramic vessels and other finds had been placed at both the feet and the head – the most remarkable  new find from this week is a nicely worked heart scarab! This piece is still left in situ, as are all the other finds and human remains – if space allows it, we would like of course a final SFM documentation of all burials in the chamber. A minimum of 4 more burials are still waiting for us!

Chamber 5, note the collapsed plaster.

Chamber 6 is getting more and more exciting! We have finally reached the base of the trench giving access to this chamber – the chamber itself is only 80-100 cm high and with an east-west extension of 220-230 cm quite small. However, and these are the big news from this week, large enough to hold 2 wooden coffins and 2 burials!

Chamber 6 with remains of two burials placed in wooden coffins.

The remains of the coffins, placed with the head to the west, parallel to the side walls, are very fragile – decayed wood, faded plaster remains and traces of blue, white, yellow and red were documented. Best preserved are the head parts of the two coffins. In each of them, the skull is a bit misplaced – possibly because of all the sediment/water floods that filled the chamber until the top.

As already announced earlier this week, a small cluster of miniature vessels and more flower pots were used as burial gifts in Chamber 6. The biggest discovery, however, was made yesterday, just before lunch time: between the two coffin heads, two stone vessels and a broken flower pot appeared a few days ago. While cleaning them and the outline of the northern coffin, I found another object made in stone: a beautiful stone shabti, lying on its side looking towards the northern coffin!

It’s a very high quality product, finding parallels in the 18th Dynasty tombs excavated by the French mission in SAC5. The shabti in Chamber 6 is of course still in place and not completely cleaned, thus the inscription is not yet readable in total. But the name of its owner is already visible and for the AcrossBorders project, it is simply perfect: he is a wab-priest with the name Khnum-mes, thus a very nice indirect reference to the First Cataract region and AcrossBorders’s other working site in Egypt, Elephantine!

The newly discovered shabti of Khnum-mes.

Much to look forward to in the upcoming week! For now, we’re having a well-deserved weekend after a busy week full of excitement and important discoveries.

Much excitement in Chamber 6

Today was quite full of important discoveries in Tomb 26… While Andrea is still working on the nicely preserved in situ-burials in Chamber 5, the new, western “hidden” chamber, I was occupied with the northern, lower Chamber 6 during the last days. We have finally reached the base of the trench giving access to this chamber – with a total of 128 cm depth, it is more or less as deep as expected.
What came somehow as a surprise are the finds inside the chamber. Already yesterday it was clear that we have two extended burials side by side, east-west oriented, head to the west. For the southern one, a small cluster of miniature vessels, nicely placed in a dish was also already known. Two new flower pots appeared yesterday at the feet of the northern individual! Making it now a full dozen of complete flower pots this season so far :-)!

Most important, however, is that I was able to clean something just a bit west of the cranium of the southern individual which allows only one interpretation: fragile plaster remains and faded wood, but clearly the outline of the top part of an anthropoid coffin!

The coffin was nicely flanked by pottery and stone vessels – in addition to the vessels placed in the dish to its south, it had two more stone vessels and one (or two) pottery vessels (guess what shape? of course flower pots again!) just north of the head part.

Although the state of preservation of the bones is rather low, Chamber 6 has already produced many important finds and rich insights for the early use of Tomb 26!

End of fieldwork in SAV1 West

Week 4 of our 2017 fieldwork season has just ended – Cajetan and Franziska, who did an excellent job in SAV1 West, have left Sai Island this morning to return back home to Germany. We still have 6 weeks of work in front of us, but as scheduled we managed to close fieldwork in sector SAV1 West.

The results are very important and will keep me busy for a bit longer: Cleaning the lowest deposits of stratigraphy in SAV1 West, both in the wall street and in other structures, it became clear that – despite of everything we thought in the last years – we do have an early 18th Dynasty occupation phase here after all!

Having processed not yet all of the ceramics, it is difficult to give an exact date, but for sure we have a phase predating the enclosure wall. Thus, SAV1 West nicely mirrors SAV1 North, the sector excavated by the French Mission between 2008-2012.

In addition to this very important new information concerning the evolution of Egyptian New Kingdom occupation on Sai, we excavated some nice features this season: two new cellars/storage pits, one grind stone emplacement and various remains of the relevant mud brick structures.

SAV1 West, status 2017.

Many thanks again to all team members for making the first half of the season very successful!

Tomb 26 continued to keep us very busy…. More and more parallels to neighboring tombs excavated by our French colleagues become evident, especially to the close-by Tomb 7.

In week 4, we managed to clear the new western chamber (feature 5) down to a level with many in situ vessels and burial remains. As yet, we have cleaned a very nice individual in extended position, lying East-West along the South wall, with his head to the West. We managed to document traces of his funerary mask – one eye has survived and traces of gold foil. Several miniature vessels were placed at the head, a cluster of flower pots at the feet. Both skeleton and vessels were partly covered by the collapse of side walls and roof.

Skull, remains of funerary mask and miniature vessels in chamber 5.

In chamber 6, the lower chamber off from the trench towards the north, I managed to reach a level with very faint traces of wood and blue, white, red and yellow plus black pigments/colors. It seems very likely that we have here a badly decayed wooden coffin – the first bones appeared yesterday!

Work will concentrate in the next weeks on finds, pottery and Tomb 26 – of course we will keep you updated!

Summary of week 3, fieldwork season 2017

Having just started week 4 of the 2017 fieldwork season, it’s time to briefly summarize the last week of work in Tomb 26 and in SAV1 West.

In Tomb 26, lots of things changed… The trench in front of the lower burial chamber still keeps us busy – we finally have now an almost complete skeleton still in place. But we still don’t know how much deeper the trench continues. The silt filling is partly void of finds, partly full of bones and also includes some pottery sherds.

Andrea busy cleaning the new, almost intact skeleton in the trench.

A big surprise waited for us in the northwestern corner of the main chamber. I started cleaning there at the very beginning of this season. Already in 2016, a feature in this corner was described as “niche” – obviously a small opening into the western wall, with collapsed stones making an assessment of its size difficult. Well – this small niche is now another chamber, measuring ca. 3.3×3.4m – and actually a “hidden chamber”! Cleaning the entrance area and removing all the collapsed stone from the roof, it became clear that the worked stones lining the western wall of the main chamber hide the second chamber situated further west! Since all was once plastered, the new chamber was once obviously nicely concealed.

Cleaning the new chamber was hard work – it was filled until the top with dense flood levels.

We have almost finished removing the debris, having reached more flood levels with some bones and pottery – at present, it seems that only little remains of burials have survived – however, for the ground plan and general understanding of Tomb 26, this is all very exciting! And we can say already that this new chamber was also plastered – remains were found on the collapsed roof and on one part where we have reached the chamber floor.

Work in SAV1 West is also progressing were well – we managed to finish excavating the extension to Square 1SE to the east which was necessary because of the new cellar found in week 2. Only little in situ mud brick structures have survived – but we will be able to put together ground plans of some nice domestic structures. Besides the cellar, a storage pit and a possible grind stone emplacement were found.

Registration of finds is continuing – our favorite piece of week 3 was a tiny miniature net-weight! Its small size becomes very evident when compared side by side with an axe-head shaped net-weight of regular size.

Furthermore, to round up a very productive week with lots of new finds, we had a perfect Friday trip to Kawa and a wonderful tour by Derek Welsby through town and cemetery – the warm welcome by our British colleagues was very much appreciated!

Last, but definitely not least, I am more than happy that my dear friend and distinguished Viennese colleague Helmut Satzinger joined us yesterday. Timing could not be better: we had the possibility to celebrate today his birthday with a small boat trip – unfortunately without seeing crocodiles, but with plenty of nimiti ;-)!

Summary of week 2, fieldwork season 2017

The second week of AcrossBorders’ fieldwork at Sai just ended. Work is making very good progress, although – as usual in archaeology – there were quite some unexpected developments and finds we had to adapt to.

At SAV1 West, the goal of this week was to investigate unexcavated parts of Square 1SE, the northeastern and southeastern corner. After 2 days, we were a little bit disappointed – almost no mud brick architecture was preserved, all New Kingdom bricks were ripped out during the substantial digging activity here in Christian and Medieval times until the natural ground surface. Thus hopes were limited, when we started cleaning a pile of collapses bricks around a very large stone in the southeast corner. It came as a big surprise that the dumped stone was 1) our first royal hieroglyphic inscription from SAV1 West! and 2) sitting on top of a mud-lined storage installation still largely intact.

The block is a re-used sandstone lintel with horizontal lines of hieroglyphs – it was recut to an almost round shape and the only hieroglyphs surviving are “nTr nfr nb xaw” – the royal name to follow was of course disturbed… Given all the known inscribed lintels from Sai, it is likely that we have here the badly disturbed inscription of Thutmose III or Amenhotep II.

Especially with the new storage installation, the southeastern corner thus turned out to be really exciting! Cleaning of the pit will continue next week – there were already some very nice finds, see below.

In the northeastern corner, a deep sandy pit, filled at the bottom with mud brick collapse was already excavated in 2016. We wanted to check the bottom of it and there came again a surprise: part of a rectangular brick wall enclosing a lower mud feature of rectangular shape sitting against the natural pebble was found! The only suitable explanation for this feature is the entrance opening to a large subterranean cellar – but of course excavation of this exciting find is not possible because we are directly in the corner of the square.

I really wonder why all of the nice cellars in SAV1 West and SAV1 East are found in baulks or corners of our excavation squares ;-)!

Well, so we had to re-adapt our plans and started an extension towards the east in order to be able to properly excavate the new cellar from the top. This will keep us busy next week!

Objects deriving from SAV1 West were registered as usual by Meg Gundlach. Among the most interesting finds is the head of a female figurine (of a type very common also at Elephantine) and a very nice cauroid bead from the small storage pit in the southeastern corner of Square 1SE.

Female figurine SAV1W 1735.

Cauroid bead SAV1W 1736.

Work in Tomb 26 made very good progress as well – we had several layers of very dense clusters of bones, all in all probably remains of 4 or 5 individuals. Cleaning and documenting them takes much time. Yesterday, I reached a level of 38 cm thickness completely void of human remains – it’s a solid accomplishment of flood levels with very little pottery fragments and still continues.

At present, we have cleaned a depth of 72 cm below the entrance to the chamber in the north – we still have not reached the bottom of the trench and hope to do this in the upcoming week.

Update from week 2, Sai Island

Just a quick update from the last few days of fieldwork: Work was successfully re-started at SAV1 West, concentrating on the mud brick structures to the east of the town enclosure. The amount of pottery unearthed is very substantial – 46 baskets of pottery in 3 days! The majority is mid-18th Dynasty in date, confirming nicely our assessment from last season.

In addition, Tomb 26 still keeps us very busy – what looked like dislocated human remains in the trench in front of the new chamber, actually turned out to be slightly twisted and moved, but almost complete individuals. The state of preservation of the bones is – like last year – very bad and cleaning is extremely time-consuming. However, with a minimum of three new “inhabitants” of Tomb 26, the trench along the northern wall yielded much more than we originally expected! One of the skeletons is just lying directly below the entrance to the chamber which is filled with deposit until the ceiling…