Josef Wegner C’89 Gr’96 was leading an excavation in southern Egypt this January when he found the entrance to an ancient tomb and decided to keep digging.
After three rooms lined with mud-brick, Wegner and his Penn Museum team unearthed a limestone burial chamber. Its pale walls were painted with vivid goddesses and faded hieroglyphics that spelled out a name: Woseribre Senebkay.
Wegner began poring through lists of Egyptian kings. Senebkay wasn’t in any of the records, yet he was clearly a ruler—or as the text on his tomb put it, “the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, the lord of the two lands, and the son of [sun god] Ra.” After a day of intensive research, Wegner and his team pieced together the magnitude of their find: they’d unearthed a previously unknown Egyptian ruler from 1650 BCE, and with him, proof of a long-forgotten dynasty.
“It’s a pretty exciting discovery and it’s been very illuminating,” says Wegner, an associate curator at the Penn Museum and associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. “Suddenly a lot of things about the site really start to make sense and come into focus.”
Abydos has been the focus of Wegner’s work since his grad-student days at Penn in the early 1990s. He’s helped dig up all sorts of things there over the years, from an 1850 BCE mayor’s home [“Gazetteer,” Nov| Dec 1999] to a highly decorated “birth brick” [“Gazetteer,” March|April 2003]. Last summer, Wegner and his Penn Museum team found two unidentifiable tombs in South Abydos, each with a partial mummy inside. “With the discovery of Senebkay in January, we realized that those other tombs probably also belonged to rulers of this Abydos Dynasty,” Wegner says. In fact, the team had found an ancient cemetery that holds at least 19 pharaohs, all from a dynasty scholars hadn’t been sure even existed.
Standing about 5-foot-10, Senebkay was probably the first or second king of the Abydos Dynasty, which spanned from about 1650 to 1600 BCE. For many years, discussions of those decades—known as Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period—focused on a conflict between the Hyskos and Theban dynasties. Senebkay proves that, as Egyptologist K. Ryholt first theorized in 1997, a third dynasty was also active in that time: Abydos.
“The Second Intermediate Period is a very problematic era in ancient Egyptian history,” Wegner says. “It’s a period of conflict, territorial fragmentation, and political fragmentation. The details haven’t been well known, but it’s a really pivotal time because very shortly afterward a series of political events led to the foundation of Egypt’s great empire, the New Kingdom. With this [Abydos] dynasty we just discovered, we’re getting a glimpse into some of the economic and political realities of ancient Egyptian society.”
Based on what his group found in Senebkay’s burial chamber, Wegner believes the Abydos Dynasty faced financial challenges from its limited territory and trade links. The tomb “belonged to a king who is clearly of fairly modest means,” he adds. Its limestone blocks were snatched from earlier monuments rather than newly quarried, and the cedar wood used in the canopic chest was taken from the tomb of a king who’d been buried nearby 150 years earlier. “They were opportunistically using materials from local kings’ tombs and monuments,” Wegner says, “acting almost like tomb robbers themselves.”
Wegner has already started planning for his next trip to Egypt in May. “We’re hoping to tackle issues of chronology and longevity with this group of kings,” he says. “If we get more tombs like Senebkay’s, we may have an actual sequence for the dynasty.” The team will also begin using carbon-dating on the mummies and burial items they’ve already excavated from the three Abydos tombs.
Meanwhile, he’ll keep searching for the next big discovery. “We’re hoping that the royal women are buried nearby somewhere, which is typical of a royal necropolis, so we may find some queens’ tombs,” Wegner says. “And courtiers and government officials are usually somewhere in the orbit of the royal necropolis as well.”
Depending on what they manage to unearth, and decode from tomb inscriptions, “we may be able to piece together quite a bit of information about this particular place from this lost dynasty,” he adds.
Make that no-longer-lost dynasty. —Molly Petrilla C’06