The discovery of his 3,600-year-old tomb has revealed the existence of a previously unknown dynasty
These are exciting times to be an Egyptologist. Earlier this month, archaeologists disclosed that everybody’s favourite mummified teenage pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, had been buried with his penis at 90 degrees to make him look more like Osiris, god of the afterlife, for reasons too complicated to get into right now.
Then Japanese researchers digging in Luxor unearthed the tomb of the chief brewer of the temple of Mut. It was the tell-tale hieroglyphics of pint mugs and crisp packets that gave the game away (I’m kidding).
And earlier this week, archaeologists found the tomb of a previously unknown 3,600-year-old pharaoh called Woseribre Senebkay, 300 miles south of Cairo.
The skeleton of Senebkay was found in a 60-tonne sarcophagus chamber made with hieroglyphics proclaiming him “king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Woseribre, the son of Re, Senebkay.” Odd: that’s exactly what I want it to say on my passport.
Senebkay was originally mummified but his body was pulled apart by ancient tomb robbers. Since then his skeleton has rested undisturbed for millennia, though he probably turned in his grave in solidarity with fellow pharaoh Cleopatra in 1964 when Carry on Cleo came out.
The tomb is the first evidence of the Abydos dynasty that apparently thrived 3,600 years ago during ancient Egypt’s yawnsomely named Second Intermediate Period. Egyptologists may be accomplished archaeologists, but sexy branding experts? Not so much.
“It’s exciting to find not just the tomb of one previously unknown pharaoh, but the necropolis of an entire forgotten dynasty,” said Dr Josef Wegner of the University of Pennsylvania, who led the expedition and who’s been digging at the site since 1994, possibly with refreshment breaks.
“Exciting” is an understatement. Surely this is an Egyptological game changer, akin to English historians finding out that between the Tudors and the Stuarts there was another hitherto neglected dynasty – the Pendlebury-Davenports, say, or the Brabazon-Planks – who were briefly big in 1603.
Apparently not. Senebkay was no Cleopatra or Rameses II. Nor were his dominions extensive, despite the boastful hieroglyphic claims decoded this week on his tomb. And his tomb wasn’t all that either: “The modesty of the size of the tomb points to the decline of economic conditions in this period,” says Wegner. Don’t move over, King Tut.
King Senebkay ruled around 1650 BC during a time between the end of the Middle Kingdom and the start of the New Kingdom when, as you know, central authority collapsed and small kingdoms such as Senebkay’s sprung up. Confusingly, there were other dynasties that held sway during this time in the larger kingdoms of Thebes (Dynasties 16–17) and the Hyksos (Dynasty 15) in northern Egypt. “Unlike these numbered dynasties,” says the Penn Museum press release, “the pharaohs of the Abydos Dynasty were forgotten to history and their royal necropolis unknown until this discovery of Senebkay’s tomb.”