Trinity welcomed one of the world’s foremost Egyptologists to campus on Wednesday, Feb. 15 to speak about her recent discoveries at Abydos, one of the most ancient cities in Upper Egypt. Associate Professor of Classics Martha Risser introduced Dr. Janet Richards, who was “deliriously happy to be back in New England.” The program was organized by Trinity’s Classics Department and the Hartford Society of the Archeological Institute of America.
Richards is currently an Associate Professor of Egyptology in the Near Eastern Studies Department and Associate Curator for Dynastic Egypt at the Kelsey Museum at the University of Michigan. She has been the Field Director at the Abydos Middle Cemetery Project in Egypt since 1995, where her most notable achievement was the discovery of the lost tomb of Weni the Elder, one of the king’s officials, and his lengthy biography. Richards has published books about architecture, art, and society in ancient Egypt. Her most recent publication is titled Order, Legitimacy, and Wealth in Ancient States.
Before diving into her presentation, titled “People, Politics, and Piety in Ancient Egypt,” Richards told her listeners she wanted to “bring [them] into the process of discovery.” She situated her findings from the sixth dynasty of ancient Egypt, around 2300 B.C., during the reign of King Pepi I. The great pyramids were built at Giza about a century earlier, during the fourth dynasty.
She explained that around this time three major changes occurred in Egyptian society; Pepi I began a new political project, there was a religious shift in the role of the god Osiris, and there was a change in the location and scale of the tombs of government officials, and all these changes seem to be related to the region of Abydos. According to Richards, she and her team have used textural data, visual data, patterning, and “quite literally fitting together puzzle pieces” with bits of pottery to create a theory of how and why these changes were related, and what they explain about human behavior in the period.
Next Richards described the ways in which the ancient Egyptians kept records of the achievements of their kings. The records they did create were quite detailed, and showed a profound difference in the way kings of the sixth dynasty were interacting with the population in comparison to previous dynasties. The use of the pyramid text also became prominent during dynasty six; these were religious texts carved on the walls of the tombs of prominent members of the community to ensure their smooth passing into the afterlife.
In her study of Pepi I’s pyramid texts, Richards found that the number of references to the god Osiris and the city of Abydos greatly exceeded that of any prior pyramid texts. The wording and ideas concerning Osiris and Abydos in the texts led her to the idea that the Egyptians believed that Osiris, who was a man before he became a god, was buried somewhere in Abydos. The increased mentions of Osiris were also significant because it was during this time that Abydos was undergoing a transition in the chief god of the region from Khentiamentiu to Osiris. Richards pointed out that this is most apparent in the inscriptions inside the tomb of Iuu, Weni the Elder’s father. In his inscriptions Osiris is mentioned 12 times, and Iuu’s death corresponds with the moment in which Osiris was taking over as god of the region. Osiris is not mentioned as much in Weni’s tomb, for by the time he died the transition was complete.
Richards and her team also found other ways that the burial sites of Iuu and Weni were unique and important to the period. The father and son are buried on the lower desert plateau at Abydos, an area considered sacred, and thus remained underdeveloped, for hundreds of years before the sixth dynasty. When tombs were built there during Pepi I’s reign, they were significantly different from other burial sites in Abydos and much more similar to the structure and placement of kings’ pyramids.
According to Richards, the tomb shafts are much deeper than the surrounding ones, the tombs are square like pyramids, and the positions of Iuu’s and Weni’s tombs in relation to each other mimic the placement of the tombs of the kings that they served. They also replicate the pattern utilized by the kings buried in Giza during the fourth dynasty. Richards believes these relationships are key to understanding Pepi I’s political decision to send his officials further from him geographically than other kings had done in the past.
At the end of the talk, Richards stressed that her work is still an ongoing process, and she admitted multiple times throughout her presentation that she had come up with some of her ideas on her plane ride to Connecticut the previous night.