Unique discovery made in Abusir by Czech archaeological mission, Laboratoriorosso’s scientific partner

The pyramids of Abusir

Following the discovery of the mastaba tomb of Khentkaus III in the Abusir Central pyramid field (selected by Heritage Daily as one of 2015’s most significant discoveries in world archaeology), the mission of the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague has recently made yet another unexpected and historically unique discovery at Abusir South. This fact once again highlights the importance of this cemetery of the Old Kingdom officials and the high level of scientific work carried out by the mission.

The discovery is connected with the project commenced in 2009 that focuses on a large mastaba labelled AS 54, which was followed by several seasons of excavations. Its exceptional size (52.60 x 23.80 m), orientation, architectural details, as well as the name of king Huni (3rd Dynasty), discovered on one of the stone bowls buried in the northern underground chamber, indicate the high social standing of the person buried in the main (so far unlocated) shaft. Unfortunately, his name remains unknown due to the bad state of preservation of the cruciform chapel. One of the spectacular features of the mastaba is its south wall decorated with black and yellow bricks resembling the enclosure wall of the oldest pyramid complex in Egypt, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, famous founder of the 3rd Dynasty.

While clearing the area south of Mastaba AS 54, a 18 m-long wooden boat was revealed. It was lying directly on tafla fill, covered with the wind-blown sand and no protective structure surrounded it. Although the boat is situated almost 12 m south of Mastaba AS 54, its orientation, length, and the pottery collected from its interior, make a very clear and strong connection between the structure and the vessel, both dating to the very end of the 3rd or beginning of the 4th Dynasty, c. 2550 BC.

While extremely fragile, the roughly 4,500 year old planks will shed new light on ship building in ancient Egypt. The wooden planks were joined by wooden pegs that are still visible in their original position. Extraordinarily, the desert sand has preserved the plant fibre battens which covered the planking seams. Some of the ropes that bound the boat together are also still in their original position with all their details intact, which is a unique discovery in the study of ancient Egyptian boats. All these minute details are of the highest importance since most of the ancient Egyptian boats and ships have survived either in poor state of preservation or were dismantled into pieces. During the spring 2016 season, the Czech Institute of Egyptology will launch a project, together with experts from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) at Texas A&M University, to study the techniques used in the hull’s construction.

The construction details are not the only features that make the boat unique. The habit of burying boats beside mastabas began in the Early Dynastic Period. This phenomenon has been well documented for royal structures, as well as for some tombs belonging to members of the royal family, the elite of society. Dr. Miroslav Bárta, director of the mission notes: “In fact, this is a highly unusual discovery since boats of such a size and construction were, during this period, reserved solely for top members of the society, who usually belonged to the royal family. This suggests the potential for additional discoveries during the next spring season.” 

Scholars debate the purpose of Egyptian boat burials. Did they serve the deceased in the afterlife, or might they have functioned as symbolical solar barques, used during the journey of the owner through the underworld? The Old Kingdom kings adopted the earlier tradition, and often had several boats buried within their pyramid complexes. Unfortunately, most of the pits have been found already empty of any timber, others contained little more than brown dust in the shape of the original boat. The only exception were the two boats of Khufu that have survived, and were reconstructed or are in the process of reconstruction. However, there was no boat of such dimensions from the Old Kingdom found in a non-royal context, until the new discovery at Abusir.  “It is by all means a remarkable discovery. The careful excavation and recording of the Abusir boat will make a considerable contribution to our understanding of ancient Egyptian watercraft and their place in funerary cult. And where there is one boat, there very well may be more.” adds  director of excavations, Miroslav Bárta.

The boat by the southern wall of Mastaba AS 54 indicates the extraordinary social position of the owner of the tomb. Since it is not located adjacent to a royal pyramid, the owner of the mastaba was probably not a member of the royal family: both the size of the tomb, as well as the presence of the boat itself, however, clearly place the deceased within the elite of his time with strong connections to the reigning pharaoh.

This discovery provides fundamental evidence corroborating a theory on which Dr. Bárta and the Czech mission have based their excavations over the past years. This theory attempts to provide an explanation for the rise and, especially, the fall of the Old Kingdom, one of the first great civilizations in history.

This theoretical understanding can be briefly summed up as follows:

  • According to Bárta’s theory on punctuated history, societies develop in major leaps separated by long uneventful periods, rather than gradually. It is possible to identify four or five leaps throughout the history of the Old Kingdom.
  • During the time of the first 3rd Dynasty king Djoser, for example, many innovations took place: architectural stone building, language writing, and the sophistication of the state administration are some of the technological advances that increased the Egyptian society’s complexity. Another major leap occurred during the time of Snofru a century later.
  • A society’s collapse means that a substantial part of the complexity accumulated by that society is lost. Complexity is related to the advancements of a society: the more advanced it is, the more sophisticated it is, the more energy it will be required to sustain its complexity. Therefore, complexity and resources are fundamentally interlinked.
  • The factors determining the collapse of a society are in general internal and contribute positively to the society’s rise. However, they end up playing a key negative role in the society’s crisis, which is generally also exacerbated by significant climate change.
  • The rise of the Old Kingdom was marked by a significant increase in the bureaucratisation of the state which led to an increasingly efficient management of the system. The surplus generated by this progress allowed for the pursue of scientific and technological advancement.
  • However, once the system reached its peak and became saturated, the bureaucracy started to consume more energy than it produced directly or indirectly and became a negative factor.
  • At the end of the Old Kingdom one of the direct effects of an excessively large bureaucracy was the increasingly influential role of interest groups. Studies show how interest groups, in times of limited resources, can tore apart a society.
  • In 2200 BC, the Old Kingdom society was going through a period of climate change and shrinking resources, which, in addition to the rising power of interest groups, led to the society’s collapse and consequent loss of verticality. The office of the king disappeared and the state dissolved into regional power centres.

The study of these macro-processes and their dynamics contributes significantly to our understanding of the causes behind the collapse of societies, so far a recurrent process in history that several scholars and scientists believe it will concern our current society too.

Laboratoriorosso has established an extraordinary partnership with Dr. Bárta and the Czech Institute of Egyptology. They are currently working together on an exciting new project that will be announced soon.