Excavations at Gamhoud, Part I

Excavations at Gamhoud

Kamal, A. “Fouilles à Gamhoud”. Annales du Service des Antiquitiés de l’Egypte. 9:1 (1908): 8-30. Online.

Ahmed bey Kamal, translated from French by K M Johnston.

We know that almost all the museums of Europe have undertaken, for several years, to commission excavations on Egyptian territory. The Museum of Budapest, until now, has neglected to take part in this scientific work, but a Hungarian, Mr. Phillip Back, desirous to render service to both science and his country, wanted very much to dedicate, as had been done by other patrons, several hundreds of Livres to such an excavation. The results of these researches should form the nucleus  of a collection of Egyptian antiquities destined for the Museum of Budapest. His demand, addressed to the director General of the Museum at Cairo, Mr. Maspero, was favorably received, and Sharouna was designated as a field for Excavation. Mr. Smolenski, a Polish Egyptologist, was then charged with directing the work in the aforementioned locality, and assembling a detailed report for the Annales du Service. From Sharouna, he would then move his worksite to the Libyan desert, across from Gamhoud, for reasons that will soon be revealed.
Gamhoud is a small town situated two and a half hours to the west of Fashn. During Ptolemaic times, the inhabitants established, a half-an-hour distance away, a small necropolis above a strip of land in the form of an arch, slightly elevated from the middle of the desert. This necropolis is around 480 meters in length by 120 meters in width, extending from the south east to the north west. At its two extremities are found funerary pits which almost always lead to two tombs. The center of the field contains only the tombs of the less rich, but several cartonnages inscribed in Demotic were also found here.
Until the month of February, 1907, this Ptolemaic necropolis, which had been partly pillaged in antiquity, remained unknown to modern man. It was only at the beginning of the aforementioned month that a citizen of Gamhoud, of the name of Mohammed Fath-al-Bah, discovered there, in unknown circumstances, a first tomb. He kept the secret of his discovery, but he went straight away to the town of Bibeh, where a certain Farag Tawdros, merchant of antiquities lived. He proposed to Tawdros to conduct illicit excavations on the condition that all the objects that might be collected would be shared between them.
Farag went without delay to the site, and first, the Bedouins, who lived in the area of Gahmoud showed themselves to be well disposed towards him. Before long, however, two amongst the Bedouins, called Moussa Khalil and Bakir Bahig, pressed by who knows what motive, telegraphed a denunciation to their inspector at Minya. Two or three tombs having already been pillaged, the inspector hurried to further advise the Markaz by dispatch, in order to let him know about the stolen antiquities and that he would be arriving shortly. In the last days of February, he presented himself at Fashn and departed from there for Gamhoud with the resident agent of the Police at Talt. Together, they came to seize several coffins and to prepare a detailed verbal process which was then presented to the public prosecutor’s office.
Tawdrows Farag, seeing that his plans had failed, went to find Mr. Smolenski, who had, at that moment, barely finished his work at Sharouna. Mr. Smolenski received this news with pleasure and then asked Mr. Maspero to authorize him to tackle the necropolis at Gamhoud which had just been so discovered. The permission was accorded—it naturally excluded Farag from the whole business. In the space of around twenty-three days, that is to say, from the 4th of March 1907 to the 26th of the same month, Mr. Smolenski brought to light 47 coffins, 20 masks of canvas, of which 4 were gilded, a piece of a terra-cotta vase with a Hieratic inscription, a crude stele bearing a line in Hieratic, 70 coffin-masks in wood, 11 boxes with bases in the form of a naos of which a few were surmounted by a falcon, 4 wooden statues of Sokaris and some masks with texts in Demotic. Obliged to abandon the work because of his ill health, Mr. Smolenski handed over to me the excavations, as well as all the objects discovered, and I started my research on the 27th of March, 1907.
After about a week, I had recovered 23 coffins, one stele bearing two lines in Hieratic, some ropes, some baskets, a large round plate in calcite, the fragments of a sieve or colander, a wooden stave, the fragments of a vase with inscription, several bases in the form of a naos, of which some were surmounted with a falcon, some cartonnages inscribed in Demotic, some garlands of flowers, etc.
The necropolis of Gamhoud is not very big, as seen on the plan below.

gamhoud map

Map of the Necropolis of Gamhoud

In the space of around seven days, I almost exhausted it, except for the central part that I neglected a bit; as I previously stated, it only contained the mummies that were poorly cared for and buried for the most part straight in the ground. I saw myself obliged, then, to finish the excavation in order to package up and send off the newly discovered antiquities which had been accumulating around my tent in the middle of the desert. The packaging of the small objects, and especially of the coffins, demanded much care. Some camels were loaded along with some barques, and all were transported, first, by dirt road through the desert, to Fashn, then, by the Nile to the Museum; this work happily ended in ten days without any damage.
Anyway, during my time at the excavations at Gamhoud, I had to conduct research in the area of the Necropolis, to see if there were not still other cemeteries which deserved attention. I recognized three. The first is situated across from Gamhoud, two and a half hours away, in a place called Minqar. Some soundings conducted there showed that it contained funerary pits of the Old Kingdom. Unfortunately, they were found empty. The second is found opposite Gafadon, around half an hour north of this one that I had exploited. It is a necropolis, probably Coptic: the diggers-of-sebakh and Bedouins living in the vicinity had taken some stones bearing some coptic-style decorations. Today, these stones are still built into the lintels of doorways in certain houses at Gamhoud and Gafadon. Finally, the third necropolis, which is situated opposite Shinaro, a half hour to the west of that village, was set up again during the Romano-Coptic period and occupies a somewhat sprawling depression in the ground.  Most of the catacombs had been robbed in antiquity, and even in our time by the Bedouins who lived in a tent in the area. I attacked the site with twelve workers, and over the course of three days, during which I emptied 10 tombs which only yielded two offering tables in calcite, of crude workmanship, two terra-cotta vials, one lamp,  one little jug, and two coffin basins, all of them made of terra cotta. I also found, in the clearing of one tomb, several fragments of gilded masks. The Bedouin robbers of that Necropolis affirmed to me that the objects that had been found there consisted of vases of the type of those that I just indicated.
I think it useful to give, before ending my description of this last necropolis, some details on the layout of some of its tombs. They start, first, with a steep slope around 10 or 12 meters in length, which is sometimes at an angle, and which has just about  1m 20 cm in width by 4 or 5 meters in depth on the side which is towards the entrance of the tomb. This slope gives access to an underground passage of variable dimensions, which is often full of dirt coming from the tombs that have been cut all around or to the right and left. In these tombs, rest mummies buried directly in the ground or in ceramic coffins that have been well fired. These coffins are rounded between the sides of the head and the feet are equipped with a type of plaque, also in terra-cotta, which serves to cover them.  I had one brought to the museum as an example. The measurement of these coffins vary in length between 1 m 85 cm and 2 m and have a thickness between 4 cm and 3 cm, and have, between the sides of the between head 40 cm and 30 cm in width. and, between the sides of the feet, sometimes 40 cm, sometimes 30 cm in width. The only decoration that is seen here consists of stripes traced in ochre. Other tombs are pits that serve one or two tombs, large enough to contain several mummies. The opening of these pits is built up with mud brick in the upper part. They descend into the earth to two or three meters of depth. The tombs are always filled with dirt coming from other, later structures, because it seems that the Ancients, at that time, did not want to expend the effort to throw out the rubble coming from the preparation of new tombs. Even in our times, the Copts that inhabit the area of this Necropolis, when interning their dead in the old cemetery called Mamer, follow this system of internment—that is to say, they they keep in place the rubble of each of the preceding graves in order to gradually backfill each of the new graves.
Despite my ardent desire to push the excavations further in order to find the bottom of the cemetery, I had to abandon them to return to the Museum at Cairo from whence other work called to me.


Note: The next half of the piece will be in the next post and will detail Drs Kamal and Smolenski’s finds.

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