Archeologists excavating at the site of Abydos, an ancient city that stood some 300 miles south of where Cairo is today, have discovered the tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh, King Woseribre Senebkay. The discovery provides new physical evidence of a third dynasty of pharaohs who ruled a central area of Egypt, between the powerful northern and southern kingdoms, during the Second Intermediate Period (about 3,650 years ago). The remains of as many as 20 other pharaohs could lie near King Senebkay’s, part of a burial ground that may rival even the famed Valley of the Kings in its significance.
Working in cooperation with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, lead archeologist Josef Wegner and his team from the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum found Senebkay’s tomb earlier this month, while excavating the larger tomb of an earlier pharaoh, Sobekhotep, who lived circa 1780 B.C. The tomb contained four chambers, including a limestone burial chamber painted with images of the goddesses Nut, Nephthys, Selket and Isis. Other texts on the chamber walls identify the buried pharaoh as “king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Woseribre, the son of Re, Senebkay.”
When Wegner and his team entered the tomb for the first time, they found evidence that ancient looters had sacked it, ripping apart Senebkay’s mummified casing and removing decorations and trinkets from the tomb. Still, the archeologists were able to piece together most of the pharaoh’s skeleton, apart from his missing jawbone. In addition to deciphering his name from hieroglyphics on the walls, they were able to confirm that the king was tall for his time (around 1.75 meters, or 5 feet 10 inches) and died when he was somewhere in his late 40s.
Though a misspelled version of Senebkay’s name may have appeared on the famous Turin King List, a papyrus document dating to the reign of Ramses II, around 1200 B.C., the tomb was the first archeologists had learned of his existence. According to Wegner, the remains of about 20 previously undiscovered pharaohs could lie near those of King Senebkay’s, suggesting the presence of a burial ground whose significance could rival that of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, site of the famed tomb of King Tutankhamen.
Senebkay, whose tomb dates to about 1650 B.C., appears to be one of the earliest kings of the long-forgotten “Abydos Dynasty.” This line of kings apparently ruled between the end of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the New Kingdom around 1550 B.C., when the northern (Hyksos) and southern (Thebes) dynasties were reunified and ancient Egypt reached its greatest heights of power and wealth. In 1997, Danish archeologist Kim Ryholt suggested there might have been a third Egyptian dynasty, but up until now no physical evidence was found to support his hypothesis. Whether the Abydos dynasty served as a buffer between the two powerful kingdoms or whether they were allies of the Thebans, its existence suggests another dimension of the already-complicated relationship between Egypt’s royal dynasties. According to Wegner, “Before we only had fragmentary evidence that there may be a separate kingdom that coexisted between the two rival kingdoms of north and south….Now we know for certain–and we need to work out what their role was.”
Senebkay’s tomb, relatively modest in size, bears little resemblance to the splendid, final resting place of King Tut, discovered intact at Luxor in 1922 by British archeologist Howard Carter). It is relatively crude, and includes some elements that were apparently stolen from the nearby tomb of Sobekhotep: The cedar wood canopic chest, used to contain Senebkay’s internal organs after their removal during mummification, still bears the older pharaoh’s name. As the team of archeologists continues their excavation of other burial chambers at the site, they can only hope to uncover at least one that has not been ransacked by ancient tomb raiders. Yet even if they find only fragments, Wegner stresses that “Continued work in the royal tombs of the Abydos Dynasty promises to shed new light on the political history and society of an important but poorly understood era of Ancient Egypt.”