False Doors for the Dead Among New Egypt Tomb Finds

Steven Stanek in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
February 25, 2008
Three false doors that served as portals for communicating with the dead are among ancient burial remains recently unearthed in a vast Egyptian necropolis, an archaeological team announced.

The discoveries date back to Egypt's turbulent First Intermediate Period, which ran roughly between 2160 and 2055 B.C.

The period is traditionally thought to have been a chaotic era of bloodshed and power struggles, but little is known based on archaeological evidence.

In addition to the false doors, the Spanish team found two funerary offering tables and a new tomb in the former ancient capital of Herakleopolis—today referred to by its Arabic name Ihnasya el-Medina—about 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of Cairo.

Previous excavations had uncovered tombs that had been deliberately burned and ransacked in antiquity, but experts are unsure if the damage was done by military conquerors or pillaging thieves.

The latest finds, along with the team's new studies of the site's charred remains, could offer a fresh look at the poorly understood First Intermediate Period.

The necropolis "is a very big site in a town that was very important in Egypt, but there is a lot that is still unknown," said excavation leader Carmen Pérez Díe of the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, Spain.

"In this place any discovery is very important, and I think [our excavations] will help write a new page for the history of Egypt."

Doorway for the Soul

Ihnasya el-Medina, known among historians by the Greek name Herakleopolis Magna, was the seat of the 9th and 10th dynasty kings.

These rulers held a loose grip over a fragmented country after the decline of Egypt's Old Kingdom.

Local rulers from Thebes eventually defeated the Herakleopolitans and established the Middle Kingdom, but details of the battles and power transfer are scarce.

"There's really not much known about [the period] at all," said Emily Teeter, a research associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Discoveries like the three newfound false doors therefore offer some of the best hope for Egyptologists hungry for information about the period's artwork and culture. (Related photos: Egypt's forgotten treasures.)

Such symbolic passageways were common features of most ancient Egyptian tombs "of consequence," according to Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

The rectangular portals, which did not actually open, were meant to allow the deceased to come back from the afterworld and consume gifts placed on nearby offering tables.

"A false door is a place where you have an interaction between the living and the dead. It is really a doorway for the soul to go in and out of the afterworld," Ikram said.

"The idea is that you say 'Hi' to the deceased, and the deceased [comes] up and eats and drinks and talks to you, gets your wish, and then goes back down."

Beer and wine were among the favorite offerings, she added. (Related news: "'Antibiotic' Beer Gave Ancient Africans Health Buzz" [May 16, 2005].)

The newly discovered false doors were found a few meters from their original locations, probably cast aside during the burial ground's destruction.

The sandstone doors are inscribed with religious texts and the names and titles of those buried in the tombs they once belonged to, excavation leader Pérez Díe said.

They were painted blue and red and depicted a recessed series of doorways, which was a common design for false doors. They also bore the formula for religious offerings.

"They really are very beautiful," said Pérez Díe, who added that the doors likely belonged to high priests and other members of the aristocracy "who were not far from the king."

At least one of the false doors was inscribed with the name Khety—the same name of the 9th and 10th dynasty kings—because officials often assumed the royal name as a sign of loyalty, she added.

Smaller Fires

The Spanish team also hopes to shed some light on the fall of Herakleopolis by studying clues in the burned remains of the necropolis.

The few written accounts that have survived from the First Intermediate Period depict it as a time of disorder and corruption, but Egyptologists have little archaeological evidence to corroborate that story.

What is known is that the power of the Old Kingdom pharaohs in Memphis had dwindled by about 2160 B.C., and several smaller city-states became more powerful and vied for supremacy.

Herakleopolis emerged as the most influential city-state and exerted control over northern Egypt for about a hundred years. To the south, however, rulers in Thebes were the dominant force.

The two powers eventually fought a large-scale war or series of wars, with the Theban kings emerging victorious, reuniting Egypt, and ushering in a new and prosperous era that became known as the Middle Kingdom.

"We know that Thebes became the top dog, but we don't really know much about the mechanism of it, other than some autobiographical texts that talked about the battles between the two sites," the University of Chicago's Teeter said.

Ikram, of the American University in Cairo, noted that "anything that happened to [the necropolis] is of interest, because it might shed light on the interaction between the north and south."

(Related news: "Rare Egyptian 'Warrior' Tomb Found" [February 15, 2008].)

In particular, scholars hope to determine once and for all whether Theban soldiers burned the necropolis as part of their campaign, or if it was sacked later by thieves.

Pérez Díe and colleagues examined burn marks on the tombs, hoping such analysis would reveal when and how the fires were set and who lit the proverbial match.

"We wanted to see if it was a very big fire or [a series] of little ones," Pérez Díe said. "If we can reconstruct the tombs from their many fragments and study the firing [marks], we can begin to explain what happened."

The team looked at the various colors of the charred mud brick walls that surrounded the tombs to determine the temperature of the flames. Higher temperatures turned the bricks red, while lower temperatures gave them a yellow or black hue.

So far, the experts conclude that some of the tombs were spared from the flames altogether, meaning that a series of smaller fires—not a massive inferno—was responsible for the damage.

That evidence could bolster the theory that the destruction was the work of individual bandits.

"I don't think you can necessarily say [burning the necropolis] was done as a statement by the Theban kings, although that's a possibility," Ikram said.

"[The fires may have been] individual events where thieves went into these tombs and burned everything in an effort to get at the gold."

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