Tomb of Djer, and later, the Tomb of Osiris at Abydos

The Tomb of Djer and Later,

The Tomb of Osiris at Abydos

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Peter Rome

The termination of the Festival of Osiris at Abydos, doubtless a major celebration from at least the late Middle Kingdom onward, was what we today recognize as Tomb O belonging to the 1st Dynasty king, Djer. However, it was mistaken for the tomb of Osiris in antiquity, as well as by its initial discoverer, Emile Amelineau.

Emile Amelineau would experience a very brief carrier as an excavator of archaeological sites in Egypt. Born in 1850, he initially worked for the French Catholic Church before studying Egyptology. Afterwards, he went to work for the French Archaeological Mission in Cairo as a specialist in the Coptic language and the history of the Egyptian Christian church. How he ended up at Abydos in 1895 with a five year exclusive contract for excavation is questionable, but apparently he had made a friend of Victor Loret, who was then the director of the Egyptian Antiquity Service.

This was certainly a mistake. Amelineau was a poor archaeologists who, after initially examining sites near the modern villages next to Abydos, moved to Umm el Ga'ab (the Mother of Pots, ancient Peqer) in 1896, and there, on New Years Day in 1898, discovered the "Tomb of Osiris". This area was simply loaded with artifacts, and hence its name. It had long been known to locals as a source of antiquities, and there was evidently a custom in the nearby villages to go there on Good Friday to obtain playthings for the children!

An early picture of the tomb of Djer and later, Osiris

Amelienau completely cleared the tomb between January 1st and 12th, discarding whole piles of artifacts and retaining only largely complete objects. Many other items were simply overlooked or ignored. However, on January 2nd, 1898, Amelineau made his most impressive discovery within this tomb. Near the southwest corner of the tomb, his workmen unearthed a large black basalt sculpture lying on its left side upon a brier. Similar to the couch from the tomb of Tutankhamen, the two sides of the brier were formed by the bodies of two lions, with hawks, representing the god Horus, guarding each corner. The statue upon the brier depicted the god Osiris, with a kite, representing Isis, straddling the god's loins in order to impregnate herself with the seed that would become Horus.

Amelineau also found a skull in chamber "D" on the east side of the site, and based on a votive ostraca found on the desert floor above the tomb, the brier sculpture of Osiris and his belief that the entrance stairway to the sepulcher was "the staircase of the Great God" mentioned in texts referring to the Osiris cult, he soon declared the tomb to be that of Osiris, and the skull to belong to the god himself. Hence, Amelineau believed that Osiris was an actual historical figure. He even believed that a huge tomb cleared between 1896 and 1897 was the final resting place of both Horus and Set, Osiris' son and brother, respectively.

In all fairness, Egyptologists have, with no specific evidence, questioned the possibility that the legends surrounding these gods might reference real legendary individuals of Egypt's predynastic period. The ancient Egyptian's certainly thought that Osiris had once been a worldly figure, for in one tale we find Osiris being dismembered by his brother Set, with his body parts spread about Egypt in various tombs. In fact, they believed that this specific tomb might have held his head! Yet the Frenchmen Amelineu's conclusions were met with academic skepticism to say the least. Even during this period, the skull was professionally examined and shown to be probably that of a woman, though this does not seem to have altered Amelineau's original conclusions.

In 1899, Gaston Maspero became, for the second time, director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, which administrated archaeological digs in Egypt at that time, replacing Victor Loret. For some time, William Flinders Petrie had been attempting to gain permission to excavate at Abydos, but was frustrated by Amelineau's five year permit. Loret had refused to overturn his decision even though the Egypt Exploration Fund made an application on behalf of Petrie. However, once Maspero, who even though French himself, was a vice president of the British Egypt Exploration Fund, took back control of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, the way was cleared for Petrie. Yet even with this change of administrations, Petrie began his work in secrecy so as not to stir up too much trouble. At the time, Amelineau had returned to France and when he learned of this reversal in March 1900, it was already too late for him to fight decision.

Maspero's decision to allow Petrie a permit to excavate at Abydos was fortuitous, for he was one of Egyptology's best during those early years. During the 1899-1900 and 1900-1901 seasons, Petri completely re-excavated the tombs that Amelineau has previously cleared.

Fine Jewelry from the tomb of Djer

His investigations produced quantities of information from remains that the Frenchmen had overlooked or discarded. Notably, one artifact that was discovered was a human arm which was still adorned with jewelry. These fine items remain some of the earliest jewelry known. Some of this has alternate plaques of gold and turquoise with the serekh of the Horus Djer, while others combine gold wire with beads of gold, turquoise, lapis-lazuli and amethyst.

Within weeks after the excavation's conclusion, he produced two volumes on his finds.

One of two Stela showing the cartouche of Djer that would have marked his tomb above ground

Some consider Petrie's publication of his Abydos work to be models for future work. It contained well written text supplemented by some 130 plates. His work properly interpreted Amelineau's original finds, and additionally, he located and identified another royal tomb (Y), belonging to Queen Meryetneith (Merytneith) of the 1st Dynasty, that the Frenchmen had completely overlooked. Petrie determined that the tomb of "Horus and Set" (Tomb V) was actually that of Horus and Set Khasekhemw, the last king of the 2nd Dynasty. Petrie also recognized that the "Tomb of Osiris" was actually the burial site of Horus Djer, the third king of the 1st Dynasty.

To give Amelineau some credit, a second excavation of the Djer tomb revealed that it had been modified in antiquity to serve as a Tomb of Osiris. The Osiris Bed, which was studied by the English Egyptologist Anthony Leahy, was dedicated by King Khendjer of the 13th Dynasty, and an entrance staircase had been added for the convenience of pilgrims to the site.

It is sometimes difficult for us to completely comprehend the great antiquity of Egypt. Consider the fact that by Egypt's 12th Dynasty, some of the tombs of the 1st Dynasty (and earlier) kings of Egypt at Abydos were already over one thousand years old. Yet the Egyptians of that later period in the Middle Kingdom knew that Umm el Ga'ab held the gravesites of Egypt's first kings and thus, they believed, of Osiris himself. These Egyptians investigated this necropolis around the 11th Dynasty, and though we do not know what sort of evidence they used to make their selection, chose the Tomb of Djer as that of Osiris.

At first, the attention given to the tomb was limited, though we see some limited dedications such as an offering table attributable to the 11th Dynasty king Montuhotep III, and a stela fragment we believe may have been contributed by Amenemhet II. However, by the 13th Dynasty, actually as Egypt sank into the Second Intermediate Period, the site began to receive monumental attention, and even as early as the end of the 12th Dynasty, many Egyptians desired to be buried at Umm el Ga'ab. Those who could not be buried there at least wanted to leave some memorial at the site, from a simple votive stela to a full scale cenotaph tomb.

Stela marking the sacred area at Umm el Ga'ab

So predominant was the desire to build in this area that eventually, a King Wagaf who presumably was the founder of the 13th Dynasty, erected four stelae in order to mark the sacred area, which was the key part of the wadi leading towards the Tomb of Djer (now the Tomb of Osiris). These stelae, of which one was preserved and placed in the Egyptian Antiquity Museum in Cairo, warned against trespassing and any attempt to build in the area under penalty of death by burning. Hence, we know that people were encroaching on the sacred ground itself with their building projects. Many people came to watch an enactment of a play surrounding Osiris which is referred to as the "Passion Play", and while visiting for this purpose, attempted to obtain preferable lots of land.

From this point onward, the "Tomb of Osiris" grew in importance. Hence, King Khendjer, who ruled soon after King Wagaf, adorned the tomb with the fine basalt image of the recumbent god discovered by Emile Amelineau and Neferhotep I, who was Khendjer's fourth successor to the throne and a fairly prominent ruler for the 13th Dynasty, usurped the four Stelae erected by King Wagaf. He also left behind a sandstone stela that was unearthed by Auguste Mariette near the entrance of the Osiris temple. It describes how Neferhotep I went to the Temple of Re-Atum at Iunu (Heliopolis) to research the correct forms due to Osiris, and afterwards, made renovations deemed necessary and exhorted the Osiris priesthood to maintain them.

The popularity of Umm el Ga'ab and the "Tomb of Osiris" continued into Egypt's late antiquity, only ending with the Persian invasion, though some offerings continued to be placed here even as late as the Roman period.

The Actual Tomb

Plan of Djer's tomb as modified for the Tomb of Osiris at Umm el Ga'ab at Abydos

The tomb of Djer, when discovered, was not unlike other tombs the general area. It was composed of chambers constructed with a cutting in the desert surface. These chambers seem to have been covered by a mound that was not, however, visible above ground. The only indication of the tomb's actual location was probably an offering place with a stela to either side.

The sepulcher beneath was approximately square, containing a central wooden compartment, surrounded on three of its sides by mudbrick storage annexes. In fact, in these latter chambers, to the west and north, there still remained a considerable number of massive jars. The storage annexes on the south, however, were either empty, or contained only fragments of smaller artifacts.

The main room of the tomb was probably floored with wood, but all that remained was a mass of carbonized timber, together with fixing wires and nails of copper, which were found along the north side of the chamber. Of course, the whole tomb had suffered a massive fire during the ancient period, at least prior to the Middle Kingdom.

The greater area of the tomb, including subsidiary burials

All about the tomb Petrie also unearthed a large number of subsidiary graves that appear to have contained the bodies of royal retainers, presumably interred at the same time as their king. Later kings would replace these human retainers with more ritual wooden figures that would do their bidding in the afterlife, but at this time, human burials of this type were not uncommon.

We also know that some of these subsidiary tombs, located about two kilometers from Djer's main tomb, surrounded a funerary enclosure which also belonged to the king. It doubtless surrounded ritual structures of some sort, which might have even included one of the earliest mortuary temples, but all of that has vanished now.

While not as brightly painted or so well adorned as those magnificent tombs of the Kings in their Valley on the West Bank at ancient Thebes (modern Luxor), this tomb must be considered one of the most interesting in Egypt, with its long and distinguished history not only as the tomb of one of Egypt's earliest founders, but of its great god as well.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
KMT A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt Aidan Dodson Volume 8, Number 4, Winter 1997-98, Page 37