UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The remains of 18 people -- apparently left as they fell during an altercation at the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt -- may shed light on the last days of the Old Kingdom, according to a Pennsylvania State University researcher.
"Several texts suggest that some kind of upheaval resulting in civil disorder occurred at the end of the Old Kingdom," says Donald B. Redford, professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies. "Until now, there has been no archaeological evidence of these events."
Toward the end of the Old Kingdom at about 2100 B.C., the state declined in wealth. The Nile's annual discharge, replenishing the fertility of fields, diminished and famine was frequent, according to Redford, a faculty member in the College of the Liberal Arts.
Site north of Cairo
The remains were found at Mendes in Egypt, two hours north of Cairo in the central portion of the Nile delta and 50 miles from the coast.
The site shows occupation during a long period from prehistory through the 26th Dynasty, or about 500 B.C., and includes a temple, necropolis and harbor as well as habitation areas. Redford, along with Douglas Brewer of the University of Illinois and Robert Wenke of the University of Washington, has been excavating at the site since 1991.
Final positions of the bodies -- arms placed over the heads and bodies sprawled in contorted attitudes exactly as they fell -- indicate that the individuals died of trauma. Masses of mud bricks covered the bodies, with the uppermost layer fire-blackened -- indicating destruction of the surrounding area.
"The date of this destruction is clear from the ceramic record and the stratigraphy that place it in the second half of the Sixth Dynasty," says Redford. "The presence of flimsy mud-brick walls built over the debris is an apparent attempt to reuse the area afterwards."
Unusual curved walls
Another interesting aspect of the 1999 summer dig was the discovery of a series of curved walls and platforms, including a courtyard surrounded by curved walls in the temple area.
"Typically, the Egyptians did not create curvilinear walls, but relied on straight line walls and sharp angles," says Redford. "These curved structures are interesting and puzzling."
This semicircular court, which the expedition has not completely excavated, is where the 18 individuals were found.
In another area of the site, the deputy director, Susan Redford, found 11 granite sarcophagi that once contained the embalmed bodies of rams. The temple at Mendes was originally dedicated to the ram god and the practice was to choose a perfect ram as the embodiment of the gods.
"By 343 B.C., the Persians were tending towards monotheism," says Redford. "They pulled the sarcophagi out of their burial chamber, destroyed the mummified rams and threw the sarcophagi out."
During this season the excavators located the original vaulted cubicles where the sarcophagi had originally rested. One sarcophagus was still partly in place, as were bronze fittings from the doors. Redford believes that this burial vault dates from about 800 B.C. or the Third Intermediate Period, but is unsure where the Egyptians interred earlier rams.
In 1991 the archaeologists excavated the royal necropolis and in 1995 began working on the temple area. The existing temple was built in three phases and was destroyed probably in the Middle Ages. Redford plans to return to Mendes this summer.