National Geographic explorers Michele Buzon and Stuart Tyson Smith are co-directors at Tombos, an archaeological site located at the Third Cataract of the Nile River in modern-day Sudan. Tombs dating to the New Kingdom (mid-18th Dynasty) through the Napatan period are present, documenting the interaction and entanglement of Egyptian colonists and local Nubians during these major sociopolitical changes in the region.
By Michele Buzon
Our investigations into understanding life and death for the elite individuals buried in the Tombos pyramid/chapel structures at Tombos have been very successful this season. The focus on two large tombs has uncovered a wealth of interesting grave goods. While several factors impede our retrieval of intact finds, including wet soil (from the rising water table) that degrades objects and skeletal remains, termite consumption of organic remains (like wood), and ancient looting, we have been fortunate this season.
We uncovered several special artifacts that were likely part of a cosmetic kit in one intact tomb. Another tomb that was looted in ancient times but not wet has revealed excellent preservation of at least two wooden coffins made for a man and a woman; while most wood is eaten by termites, these large coffin pieces have preserved readable inscriptions and paint, which provides an indication of who was buried in the tomb.
Our second week of excavations resulted in an exciting burial. Found within a mudbrick lined burial shaft likely dating to the Third Intermediate Period is a woman buried in the Nubian flexed position on top of a large woven basket with a dog at her feet. This our first animal burial directly associated with a person at Tombos (a horse burial was found in 2011).
We were also lucky to find a set of four inscribed ceramic canopic jars at the back of an 18th Dynasty tomb chamber, along with other pottery vessels.
Ancient tomb robbers had apparently broken each in their search for valuables, but canopic jars were used to hold the separately embalmed internal organs of the deceased who had undergone the most elaborate form of mummification. The inscription on each vessel invokes the protection and blessing of one of the four Sons of Horus, Imsety for the liver, Hapy for the lungs, Duamutef for the Stomach and Kebehsenuef for the intestines.
Although the practice of evisceration is often thought of as a standard part of mummification, the practice was rare in the New Kingdom, and highly correlated with the elite, although by no means ubiquitous even among them. Ceramic canopic jars were a cheaper alternative to the use of alabaster, although the appearance of canopic jars at all indicates the high status of the primary tomb owner in Tombos’ society.
We also found stoppers for all of the jars decorated with human faces, as was the case for canopic jars in the New Kingdom. Later on, the stoppers assumed human and animal forms connected with the four deities—human for Imsety, baboon for Hapy, jackal for Duamutef and falcon for Kebehsenuef.
We have also succeeded in increasing our representation of children in the cemetery sample from Tombos.
We have concentrated on smaller pit tombs surrounding the larger pyramid/chapel structures. This strategy has been very fruitful. We are gaining a better understanding of how children were treated in death and a glimpse of the Tombos community from infant to elderly in terms of the health conditions experienced over the course of life. Reuse of tombs over the New Kingdom period also provides a sense of how the cemetery was used over time.
With each new day, the team is uncovering further clues about how the site was used, and intriguing details about the lives (and deaths) of the people who called it home.