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Egyptian Tomb Yields "World's Oldest Love Song"

A team of Czech archaeologists working in Abu Sir, an ancient necropolis southwest of Cairo, has found evidence that the world's oldest documented song was a love song.

In the 4,300-year-old tomb of Inti, a nobleman and judge, archaeologists found hieroglyphs on the tomb wall surrounded by images of singers and musicians playing the harp.

Egyptian harpist and dancers, pictured in a tomb painting from a much later date (approximately 1,000 years later) than the inscription found at Abu Sir. It is likely that the instruments and dancing pictured here were similar to the musical traditions of Egypt's Old Kingdom.

Photograph by Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis

"It was probably a song of love, honoring Mentu, Inti's wife," says Miroslav Barta, an archaeologist with the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University in Prague.

The inscription was discovered last fall inscribed on the walls of Inti's tomb, which dates to the end of Egypt's Old Kingdom, near the time when the age of pyramid builders was coming to an end.

First Song

The words of the song have not been completely translated, but seem to consist of a tribute to a woman's beauty, says Bratislav Vachala, director of the Czech Institute of Egyptology.

The inscription, which is just a fragment found in the partially excavated tomb, reads "I love and admire your beauty. I am under it," he says.

Inti lived in the reign of Pepi, a pharaoh of Egypt's Sixth Dynasty.

This time period is interesting, says Vachala, because it came near the end of the Old Kingdom, which was followed by a period of instability. Evidence recovered from Abu Sir and other Old Kingdom sites is suggesting that the age of pyramid building may have come to close even before the instability began.

The tomb of Inti has nothing to do with the pyramids, however. It is a mastaba tomb, typical of a tomb for nobility of the time. It consists of a one-story stone structure above ground and chambers dug below ground. Pyramids were built only for pharaohs and were constucted over many decades.

Role of Music

Music was an important aspect of life to ancient Egyptians, says Terry Wilford, associate curator of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan.

"Music was a part of daily life, " says Wilford. "It was used primarily for worship, and in work situations, by laborers in the field. Music was also played at parties and festivals."

While music lyrics at Abu Sir date to 2,300 B.C., musical notation—which tells an artist how to play a particular song—has been discovered dating to a later time, during the time of the Roman occupation of Egypt, he says.

Although the ancient melodies and rhythms are lost, "some of the music may have sounded like modern Middle Eastern music, with its nasal-sounding flute, and may have been used in a similar context."

Abu Sir: A Trove of Tombs

Already Vachala's team has discovered the tomb of Inti's father at Abu Sir, and the archaeologist suspects they may find more members of the genealogical line of judges when they return next autumn for a new digging season.

Though Inti's tomb had been robbed in antiquity, inscriptions on his limestone sarcophagus and the tomb walls led archaeologists to identify him and his two sons. Some funerary objects, including alabaster bases, were also recovered from the tomb.

Vachala plans to publish a complete report of last fall's digging season later this year. He will return to Egypt next fall to continue excavating the tomb of Inti and other mastaba tombs at Abu Sir.

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