Smoleński’s Excavations at Gamhoud

About a month ago, I went to Poland as a tourist. Poland is a beautiful, friendly country with a fascinating and sometimes tragic history, but since this is an Egyptology blog and since Egyptian stuff is never far from my mind, I’d spent some time scouting the Egyptian Collection scene before we departed.  Needless to say, my Egyptian agenda was not on the tour’s itinerary, so on a miserably rainy “free afternoon” in Krakow, while others were shopping for souvenirs and revisiting Wawel castle, I slipped into a quiet garden behind a mossy stone wall. The lady at the ticket booth took my money grudgingly and gesticulated impatiently at me. I do not understand much Polish beyond “Nie rozumiem“, which is usually evident by the time you say it,  but I do understand it when someone points at their watch with a deliberate stab. This means “We’re closing in twenty minutes, so make it fast.” Thus, like the original excavation of the Gamhoud coffins, my introduction to the Krakow collection was quite breif.

Krakow is in the possession of four coffins from the area of Gamhoud in Lower Egypt. How these got to Krakow is the subject of this post.

The coffins in Krakow were excavated by Ahmed Kamal and  Tadeusz Smoleński. Smoleński is considered the first Polish Egyptologist. He entered the field almost accidentally-he had started a PhD dissertation on Poland’s medeival history at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University but was diagnosed with Tuberculosis before he could complete his degree. Smoleński’s interest in Egypt was piqued when he stayed there with a friend after his diagnosis. On his return to Poland in 1905, the editor  of the “Historical Review” journal at Jagiellonian University with which he was still affiliated recommended that he change his focus to Egyptology, as there was no one publishing on the topic at the time in Poland.  Smoleński seized the opportunity and moved to Cairo to study under Maspero, who was then the director of the Service des Antiquités. (Barbaj & Szymańska, 2000, pp7)

Maspero seems to have taken a liking to the young Egyptologist-in-training, who was learning hieroglyphs very quickly, despite holding a full-time day job and struggling with the fast progression of his illness. When the wealthy Hungarian businessman Philip Back decided that it was his patriotic duty to start a collection of Egyptian antiquities in what was then Austro-Hungary, Maspero put Smoleński in charge of the excavations. In 1906, excavations commenced in the town of Sharouna. (Györy, 2007, pp907)

Smoleński had moderate success at Sharouna, success in this time being defined by the quality of the finds brought back to the sponsoring museum and not by the meticulous documentation of the excavation. He discovered the tomb of Pepyankh and Merut: a 6th Dynasty official and his preistess wife (Smoleński, 1907). He also found blocks from a Ptolemaic temple dating to the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphos and Ptolemy I Soter. (Smoleński, 1908) He did summarily publish his finds and you can read about them here and here.

Meanwhile, down the river to Al Fashn, and about a two hour camel-ride to the west, at a village called Gamhoud, a citizen named Mohamed Fath al Bah had discovered a tomb and was eager to make a fortune by selling its contents. He struck a deal with an antiquities dealer in the region named Farag Tawdros, who in turn enlisted the help of some Bedouins to “excavate” the tomb. Perhaps some squabble then ensued, because after two or three tombs had been relieved of their contents, the inspector at Minya was tipped off by telegram that illicit excavations were occuring.  Then, as in many of these early accounts, the inspector rounded up his posse and pursued the robbers, confiscating the coffins which had been looted (we do not know which ones) and delivering justice, hopefully of the non-frontier variety.

Farag Tawdros the antiquities dealer, in what I can only assume was an attempt at damage control, sent word of the discovery to an archaeologist working nearby, Tadeusz Smoleński. Smoleński must have seen a chance to make a name for himself: he alerted Maspero to the discovery and asked that he be allowed to excavate it on behalf of Philip Back. Maspero granted the request, Smoleński began to excavate, and, to paraphrase Kamal: “Naturally, Tawdros was left out of the affair.” (Kamal, 1908, pp9)

Ahmed bey Kamal, the Egyptian scholar who inherited the excavation from Smoleński when the later became too ill to excavate, published a sparse account of the excavation which is fairly typical of the time. It consists of a general description of the area as being on an elevated patch of desert, crescent in shape, extending from the from the southwest to the northwest 480 m in length and 120 m in width. According to Kamal, the cental area of the crescent contained on average, poorer burials–coffins and skeletons buried in the ground (although some cartonnages inscribed in Demotic were found here)–than the tips  of the crescent which housed the tomb shafts of the more affluent members of society.  These wealthier tombs were accessible by shafts which served two chambers.  The cemetery dated from the late Pharaonic period and contained burials from the Ptolemaic period. It had been robbed in antiquity.

What follows in Kamal’s account is an inventory of the items found: Smoleński unearthed 47 coffins, 20 masks, 1 terracotta vase, 1 crude stele, 70 wooden coffin masks, 11 shrine-shaped boxes, and 4 Ptah-Sokar-Osiris statues in the span of time between March 4th and 26th, 1907.  Kamal himself unearthed 23 coffins, 1 stele with inscriptions in hieratic, some ropes and baskets, a large round calcite dish, peices of a collander, a staff, a vase, some more shrines, cartonnages with demotic, garlands of flowers etc. Yes, “etc.” is the actual wording here. Kamal’s excavation consumed the expanse of a week. It took him ten more days to pack the finds for transit to Cairo. (Kamal, 1908, pp10)

Of the coffins, Kamal remarks that after being shipped to Cairo, a portion of them was given to Philip Back, who divided them as follows: 12 went to Budapest and 5 to what is now the Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna. Three went to Krakow’s Academie des Sciences, which is now the Krakow Museum of Archaeology.  Another coffin  was given to Count T. Koziebrodzki, who was at that time the  Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Egypt, and who had been a good friend to Back. This coffin too was given to the Academie des Sciences, Krakow on the death of the count. (Babraj & Szymanska, 2000, pp10).

Before returning to the Cairo Museum, Kamal performed soundages at three nearby sites which he suspected to be ancient cemeteries. A site two and a half hours away by camel which Kamal refers to as Minqar was entirely looted but probably pharaonic in date. A site situated a half-hour’s ride to the north of Gamhoud turned out to be a Coptic cemetery as evidenced by the Coptic-style carved blocks that the local villagers were using in their houses. Finally, a half-hour west of Shinaro, Kamal found a Roman cemetery and was disappointed to discover that aside from being nearly picked clean in antiquity and by the local Bedouins, that the large underground vaults at this cemetery were filled with skeletons and mummies in terra-cotta cases. Of these, Kamal selected only one pottery case to return to the Museum in Cairo–the rest were supposedly left behind. (Kamal, 1908, p12) As an aside, I looked at the Catalogue General of Egyptian Antiquities in the Cairo Museum publication on Anthropoid Clay Coffins and there does not seem to be an entry for a Roman period coffin discovered at Shinaro by Kamal.  (Sabahy, 2009).

As for Smoleński, his health improved enough that he was able to return to Gamhoud, and performed excavations at a Middle Kingdom cemetery at Gamhoud and a New Kingdom site at Shinari. However, his health continued to deteriorate and he died in June of 1909 at a hospital in Krakow. (Babraj & Szymanska, 2000, p11) His further excavations at Gamhoud were, to my knowledge, never published, but his diary is the source of much of what we know about the daily work and distribution of the finds from the excavations.

I returned to the hotel, camera in pocket, thankful that the signs at the Krakow Archaeological Museum (Muzeum Archeologicne w Krakowie) were partially in English, and wanting to know more about the collection housed there. I later returned to the museum after carefully noting their hours, which are quite irregular. I got to spend a lot of time looking at the collection and taking pictures this time, and the guards and casheirs were all very friendly when I wasn’t inconveniencing them. I also got the chance to buy the bilingual museum guide to the Egyptian Exibit, cited below, which has been invaluable in researching this post. Next week, I’ll delve a little deeper into the fate of the coffins from the Gamhoud find, and what we’ve learned from the reasonably intact burial in one of them, that of Aset-iri-Khetes. Oh…and there will be pictures.


Babraj, Krzysztof, and Hanna Szymańska. Bogowie Starożytnego Egiptu = The Gods of Ancient Egypt. [Kraków]: Muzeum Archeologiczne W Krakowie, 2000. Print.

Györy, Hedvig. “The Story of the Gahmud Excavations.” Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Egyptologists = Actes Du Neuvieme Congres International Des Egyptologues. Ed. C. Cardin and J -Cl Goyon. Vol. 150. Leuven: Peeters, 2007. 907-17. Print. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta.

Kamal, Ahmed. “Fouilles à Gamhoud.” Annales Du Service Des Antiquités De L’ÉgypteIX (1908): 8-30. The Internet Archives. 7 July 2010. Web. 13 June 2012. <>.

Sabbahy, Lisa. Anthropoid Clay Coffins. Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities, 2009. Print. Catalogue General of Egyptian Antiquities in the Cairo Museum.

Smoleński, Tadeusz. “Les Vestiges D’Un Temple Ptolémaïque à Kom-El-Ahmar, Près De Charouna.” Annales Du Service Des Antiquités De L’Égypte IX (1908): 3-6. The Internet Archive. 30 April. 2008. Web. 13 June 2012. <>.

Smoleński, Tadeusz. “Le Tombeau D’un Prince De La VIe Dynastie a Charouna.”Annales Du Service Des Antiquités De L’Égypte VIII (1907): 149-53. The Internet Archive. 16 Apr. 2008. Web. 13 June 2012. <>.

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2 Responses to Smoleński’s Excavations at Gamhoud

  1. Mom says:

    LOVED reading this!

  2. Pingback: Return to Gamhoud | Egyptological Puzzles

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