Umm el-Qa'ab


Hinting at the large number of pots and pot shards found there, Umm el-Qa'ab, "the mother of pots" is the modern-day Arabic name of a region located in the desert between the fertile grounds of Abydos and the rim of mountains that stands to the south-west. Abydos is located approximately halfway between Luxor (Thebes) and Assiut.

Interactive map of Umm el-Qa’ab. Click on the circles to learn more about the tombs at this site.
Source: Wilkinson, Early Dynastic Egypt, p. 232, fig. 7.1.

Umm el-Qa'ab was used as a burial ground serving the elite ruling the area of Abydos since early Predynastic times, from at least the Naqada I period, ca. 3800 BC. It was the royal cemetery during the 1st Dynasty and was also used by the two last kings of the 2nd Dynasty, confirming Manetho’s statement that the early kings of Egypt originated from This, near Abydos.

The area has been divided into two cemeteries, U and B. Cemetery U is dated to the Predynastic era and includes the famous tomb U-j, which belonged to a powerful ruler whose influence may perhaps have extended as far as Lower-Egypt. This tomb has yielded some inscribed tablets, which are believed to be the oldest known examples of writing to mankind. One of the tables may have contained an early writing of the name of Bubastis, a city located in the western Delta. If this writing is correct, then the owner of tomb U-j must at least have had trading contacts with Lower-Egypt.

Several inscribed bone tags from tomb U-j at Umm el-Qa’ab, the oldest examples of writing known to mankind.

Several inscribed bone tags from tomb U-j at Umm el-Qa’ab, the oldest examples of writing known to mankind.
Source: Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology Website.

Cemetery B is dated to the Early Dynastic Period, and was exclusively used by the royal family. The tombs are significantly larger than those in cemetery U. The increasing size of the tombs hints at the increasing wealth and power of the ruling family and at the better mastery of crafts.

Even though each royal tomb is different from the other, they all share the same basic structure, which consists of a large, square pit dug into the ground, lined with mudbrick walls. This pit was used as the main burial room. It was often surrounded by additional chambers, at a slightly higher level than the burial room itself. In the tombs of Djer and Djet, these rooms open off the central chamber. From the tomb of Meretneith onwards, they would surround the burial chamber, without interconnecting. 
From the reign of Djet onwards, the superstructure of the tombs appears to have consisted of a hidden mound over the main burial chamber and a larger mound covering the entire tomb. There are indications that the large mound may also have hidden the subsidiary tombs which, starting from the reign of Aha, extended from or surrounded most 1st Dynasty royal tombs. If this is indeed the case, then it is clear that the subsidiary burials all occurred at the same time as the royal burial.

The tomb of Den at Umm el-Qa’ab was surrounded by 136 subsidiary tombs.

The tomb of Den at Umm el-Qa’ab was surrounded by 136 subsidiary tombs.

Several tombs appear to be associated with mudbrick enclosures, built more to the east, close to the rim of cultivation. The largest and most famous of these enclosures, known today as Shunet el-Zebib, is dated to the reign of Khasekhemwi, the last king of the 2nd Dynasty. The purpose of such enclosures is not clear, but because several kings appear to have built one in the vicinity of their tomb, it is generally accepted that they are to be interpreted in a funerary context.

The identification and dating of the oldest known tomb in cemetery B, labeled B0/1/2 is somewhat problematic. Some doubt has even been expressed whether the pits B1 and B2 should belong to the structure because they do not share the same orientation. The oldest tomb that can be identified with an acceptable degree of certainty is that of the Horus Ka (or Sekhen), who is believed to have been Narmer’s immediate predecessor. 
Even the identification of the tomb usually believed to have been Narmer's, B17/18, has recently been doubted on the grounds that this tomb would seem too insignificant to have belonged to such a great king. If B17/18 did not belong to Narmer, than the tomb of this king is as yet unidentified. That he was indeed buried at Umm el-Qa'ab is shown by seal-impressions found in the tombs of Den and Qaa. On both sealings, the name of Narmer is clearly present.

Pits B17/18, were probably the tomb of Narmer.

If one accepts that B17/18 was Narmer’s tomb, then the sequence of kings buried at Umm el-Qa’ab is undisturbed from the reign of Narmer, or perhaps even before, until Qa’a, the last king of the 1st Dynasty.
Later generations believed that the tomb of Djer was the tomb of Osiris, the god of the dead.
The presence of a tomb for the King’s Mother Meretneith, next to that of her son, Den, confirms her special status.

For unknown reasons, the first kings of the 2nd Dynasty chose to be buried at Saqqara instead of the older cemetery of Umm el-Qa'ab. This decision may have been the reason for the turmoil which disturbed the second half of the 2nd Dynasty. Peribsen appears to have been the first to return to the ancestral cemetery of Umm el-Qa'ab, followed by Khasekhemwi, who was also the last king to be buried there.

© Jacques Kinnaer 1997 - 2017