Weni the Elder and His Mortuary Neighborhood at Abydos, Egypt

Weni the Elder and His Mortuary Neighborhood at Abydos, Egypt



Everyone who has studied ancient Egyptian history is familiar with the autobiography of Weni the Elder, an enterprising individual who lived during the 6th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (ca. 2407-2260 BCE). His inscription, excavated in 1860 from his tomb in the low desert at Abydos in southern Egypt, enthusiastically describes his long service under three kings, culminating in his appointment as "True Governor of Upper Egypt." Scholars have hailed it as "the most important historical document from the Old Kingdom" and have used it to illustrate the rise of a class of "new men" in Egyptian politics and society--persons whose upward mobility rested in their abilities, not in noble birth.
Discussions of the Weni text almost never treat it as an artifact with physical properties and a context. In this regard, the Weni inscription is a good example of a persistent split in Egyptology--between those who study texts and those who focus on spatial organization and material culture. Yet context coupled with content can enhance what a text can tell us, or context can inform us about topics on which the text is silent.

Earlier Excavations

Since 1995, the Abydos Middle Cemetery Project, which I direct under the aegis of the Kelsey Museum and the Pennsylvania-Yale-New York University Expedition, has focused on the mysterious part of Abydos from which Weni's inscription was known to have come. "Mysterious" because no one had excavated there since 1870 (officially, at least), when Auguste Mariette, the colorful first director of the Egyptian antiquities organization, flung hundreds of workmen all across the North Abydos landscape.
Mariette was not known for meticulous field notes, and consequently there is no detailed record of the findspots of Weni's inscription or those of several other important officials found on "the high hill which gives the middle cemetery its name" (Mariette's words, and among his most detailed contextual comments!). A series of early twentieth-century campaigns elucidated the areas surrounding this high hill--a "middle-class" cemetery of thousands of modest shaft and surface graves--but all of those excavators avoided the area worked over by Mariette's men.

The 1999 Season

Our interest has therefore been not only to resituate physically the individual Weni the Elder but also to illuminate the character and spatial organization of the late Old Kingdom cemetery as a whole, as well as its relationship with the adjacent town and temple area during a pivotal period of Egyptian history.

Overall schematic map of Abydos (after Kemp 1975).

During two short survey seasons in 1995 and 1996, we created a detailed topographic map of the entire Middle Cemetery and completed an intensive surface collection and ceramic analysis of the area most likely to be Mariette's "high hill." The ceramic materials and large, ruined mudbrick mastabas (surface chapels) found during these seasons indicated a strong 6th Dynasty presence. Armed with that information and a survey of Mariette's finds in the Cairo Museum, we returned to the site in September 1999 for a full-scale excavation season.

Crew of the 1999 Abydos Middle Cemetery Project.

The crew comprised myself as director; assistant director for bioarchaeology Brenda Baker of Arizona State University; University of Michigan graduate students Geoff Compton and Amanda Sprochi as well as undergraduate Jason Sprague; and Arizona State University graduate students Scott Burnett, Anna Konstantatos, Penny Minturn, and Korri Turner. Mr. Adel Makary Zekery of Sohag graciously acted as Inspector for the project; we are grateful also to Dr. Yahia el Sabri el-Misri and Mr. Ahmet el-Khattib for their support. Finally, many thanks are due to Sharon Herbert and the staff of the Kelsey Museum.*
Despite temperature extremes (scorching in September and October, freezing in November and December), an armored vehicle in the Middle Cemetery, collapsing tomb shafts, regular visits from horned vipers, and a dig-house typhoid epidemic, the season produced phenomenal results. We gathered information on previously unknown individuals and evidence for wholly unsuspected private votive activity. Fresh facts also emerged regarding the career and family of Weni the Elder and the design of his eternal residence in the Old Kingdom cemetery. And finally, the excavations yielded data on the Late and Ptolemaic-Roman period at the site. (One of the hazards of digging in periods as early as the Old Kingdom is that they are inevitably overlain by meters of later activity.) Space constrains me to focus here on Weni and the Old Kingdom remains.

Map of primary areas excavated (produced by Geoff Compton.

Nhty's Complex

Two of the four broad areas in which we worked were the most important for understanding late Old Kingdom mortuary patterning. The first of these was a badly ruined mastaba that was initially the most visible chapel in the Mariette area. In 1996 we had thought it was quite possibly Weni's chapel, in part because it was so badly destroyed: the removal of limestone architectural elements from their original emplacements usually necessitates the demolition of the building in which they occur, and Mariette extracted several such pieces inscribed for Weni.
Our excavation of this area revealed a large complex focused on the mastaba and a number of subsidiary monuments constructed around it in the late Old Kingdom, the First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom, and the Late Period. The primary mastaba did not, however, belong to Weni but was instead the grave of a previously undocumented individual named Nhty, a prince, mayor, sole companion, and chief priest.

Overview of the Nhty complex.

Nhty seems to have been an individual who commanded a long-lasting and substantial respect: 50 centimeters above the original Old Kingdom use surface, small mudbrick votive chapels aligned with Nhty's complex were constructed in the Middle Kingdom, one of which still contained a basalt pair statue. This discovery was completely unexpected, since the surface ceramic gave no hint of Middle Kingdom activity.

Weni's Mastaba

North of Nhty's complex lies an even larger structure, and it was here that we found the most compelling evidence for the final resting place of Weni the Elder. In 1996, we had documented a mudbrick structure that was 16 meters long on its north face; excavation revealed it to be a massive enclosure 29 meters on each side, 3 meters thick, and over 5 meters high.
The builders constructed a great burial shaft within this enclosure along with two other smaller shafts, and the whole structure would have been filled with clean sand and roofed in antiquity, to give the appearance of a solid mastaba. This mastaba is situated at the highest point in the Middle Cemetery, and its visual impact on inhabitants of the town below would have echoed that of the great Early Dynastic (ca. 3100-2750 BCE) funerary enclosures across the wadi in the Northern Cemetery. Like them, it is so large that it is visible from the high desert cliffs more than half a mile away.

Weni's mastaba with false door in situ.

Early in the season, we excavated a number of inscribed relief fragments from this area, including two pieces that, when joined together, furnished the name "Weni the Elder" and a fragment providing the title "True Governor of Upper Egypt," the highest title recorded in Weni's autobiography. Further evidence emerged supporting this association. The exterior face of the north wall incorporates a large niche, and during excavations here a damaged false door inscribed for Weni the Elder was discovered in situ. Not only does this false door provide a nickname for Weni ("Nefer Nekhet Mery-Ra"--Egyptian nicknames were often longer than birth names!), but it also documents his final career promotion, a fact not recorded in his autobiography: Chief Judge and Vizier.

Closeup of Weni's false door: title "vizier" and nickname.

A series of shaft and surface burials lay north of the false door; ranging in date from the late Old Kingdom to the First Intermediate Period, they suggest that Weni's grave became the focus of a group cemetery--perhaps a kinship network.
On the east face of the mastaba we discovered further evidence for Weni. In surface fill, we excavated a limestone door jamb nearly two meters long and inscribed for the same Vizier Iww documented in a tomb by Richard Lepsius in 1840. On both sides of the jamb, male relatives present offerings to Iww; one of these relatives is identified as: "his eldest son, the governor of Upper Egypt Weni the Elder." So despite Weni's emphasis in his autobiography on merit as the sole means of his upward mobility, it is clear that he belonged to an already powerful family--although he chose not to communicate this fact.

The Offering Chapel

A few meters east of the jamb, we excavated a small offering chapel constructed directly onto the wall of the great mastaba. Entered through a narrow doorway on its east side, the chapel was originally completely decorated with painted low relief depicting offering bearers. Many of the blocks comprising this decorative scheme were removed during some earlier excavation or plundering episode, but several remained in situ on the walls and doorway, with nine additional blocks lying tumbled on the floor. One exterior door jamb, partially preserved, bears a standing representation of the tomb owner, preserved from the waist down. Comparison of this relief with the top part of a tomb owner named Weni the Elder in the Egyptian Museum suggests that they originally belonged together.

Weni's mastaba: the eastern chapel remains.

It seems clear that this half-destroyed chapel is the original context of Weni's funerary furniture excavated by Mariette and currently in the Egyptian Museum, and we can now propose the following reconstruction. Weni's first false door was placed in the main niche of this chapel. The massive slab of the autobiography was mounted on the exterior face of the chapel, whose walls are sufficiently thick to have borne its undoubtedly great weight. Such a placement would explain both the off-axial location of the chapel entrance--which was pushed north to accommodate the 2.75-meter width of the autobiography--and the autobiography's extremely weathered condition. Two miniature obelisks bearing Weni's name would have been placed just outside the entrance to the chapel.

Reconstruction of Weni's chapel with Egyptian Museum artifacts resituated (illustration by Geoff Compton).

Further Evidence of Weni

Upon Weni's promotion to Chief Judge and Vizier at the very end of his career, he installed his second false door recording that fact on the north face of his mastaba. Both false doors align with the probable location of Weni's burial chamber, which lies north of the great shaft at a depth of more than 12 meters.
In the mastaba interior, a huge deposit of 6th Dynasty offering pottery--more than 500 collared wine jars--lay in piles east and west of the shaft, as well as in neat lines to the north. Situated among this deposit of pottery were ten in situ coffin burials of the Late Period, indicating later reuse of this space as a small cemetery.
The final connection to Weni came from a rectangular structure in the southeast corner. This feature contained the deteriorated remains of more than thirty wooden bases for statues and production scenes, plus several disembodied elements such as arms, hands, animal fragments, and limestone components of the production scenes, such as miniature basins capped with basket strainers for the production of beer. The best preserved and most significant artifact was a beautifully executed limestone statuette of the tomb owner as a young boy, identified as "the count, Weni."

The Tomb's Significance

This combined evidence strongly suggests that we have found Weni's tomb, the primary monument in an elite zone bracketed by a middle-class cemetery. This tomb made a striking visual statement of access, wealth, and political power, which may have mirrored a similar statement in the Old Kingdom town at Abydos--a mysterious, massive building, which Matthew Adams, codirector of the town project, has long suspected is a governor's palace. Given its scale and the similarity of its construction techniques to Weni's tomb, it is tempting to consider it part of Weni's building activities, bridging living and mortuary landscapes.
The results of the 1999 excavations present a complex blend of elite and nonelite burial and votive activity during the late Old Kingdom into the Middle Kingdom, a time span when both political power and the importance of Osiris were growing in this region. The physical resituation of an important historical individual within that multidimensional picture allows us more effectively to integrate textual and archaeological lines of evidence in our reconstruction of ancient Egyptian political and social history. Much work remains to be done; and the success of last season, thanks to a phenomenally skilled crew, has provided us with a solid basis for future research at the site.


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