A Massive Structure Underfoot In Egypt Penn Scientists Have Uncovered A 4,000-year-old House Fit For A Mayor - And More.

Posted: August 12, 1999

Mayor Rendell, eat your heart out.

Philadelphia archaeologists excavating an ancient Egyptian site have found a house truly fit for a mayor in the ancient city of Abydos. It is the first such find in all of Egypt.

The 4,000-year-old house, which boasted walls five feet thick, spans more than 40,000 square feet - covering nearly an acre. It was a city hall, financial center, granary and a mansion rolled into one.

The mayor may have controlled 75 percent of the wealth in the town and supervised such important officials as the overseers of the herds, the brewery, and the superintendent of the bread house.

"If a modern mayor could go back in time and get a sense of the responsibilities in ancient Egypt, there's a lot he could identify with," said Josef Wegner, a University of Pennsylvania archaeologist who led the expedition.

The house was extremely well built, according to the Penn archaeologists. It was fronted by 14 columns. A series of rooms and corridors flanked a central nine-block area where the mayor lived.

The mansion dominated Abydos, whose tightly packed houses were home to about 1,000 people. Principal among the mayor's duties was the worship of a king - Senworset III, who died in 1841 B.C., shortly after completing construction of the city, designed to be a temple to himself. The city maintained a temple that honored the "cult of the king," who lay nearby in a vast underground tomb.

In his office at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology - whose labyrinthine corridors and stairways might bear similar excavation someday - Wegner held up a replica of King Senworset III on a stick, which had been stuck into his air-conditioning vent.

The king, he explained, designed the tomb, temple and city himself - sturdy buildings that were to last for all eternity. In reality, the cult of Senworset lasted 200 years. Wegner said the structure was the first such find in all of Egypt.

Wegner and the other archaeologists pieced together details about the society from the buildings, inscriptions and artifacts they found.

"It is a detective game," Wegner said. "It's not like the place was sealed with everything intact. It's 4,000 years old and looks 4,000 years old."

From a vast number of broken seal impressions on clay, the scientists deduced that at least four mayors had lived in the city called "Enduring-are-the-Places- of-Khakaure-maa-kheru-in-Abydos."

The mayors were no more than a step removed from the pharaohs themselves, who were regarded as divine. One mayor may have even married a pharaoh's daughter.

Toys found include figurines of dolls, animals and pieces of hounds and jackals, perhaps used to play a game similar to backgammon.

The work was slow, painstaking and often confusing. One mystery involved a square limestone pedestal, which archaeologists found clearing brickwork at the base of a doorway. There was a depression in the center for the doorpost.

The curious thing was that the pedestal had inscriptions on it. Why would anyone - including the ancient Egyptians, who had a penchant for ornate decorations - carve inscriptions on a stone used to support a door?

Wegner examined the writing: It resembled a seal he had earlier found, a seal that belonged to the first mayor of the city.

"It was a religious offering table," onto which the mayor poured libations to appease the gods, he said. "It wasn't an inscribed door pivot."

Years or decades later, someone had used the stone square to anchor a door, the archaeologists concluded.

Wegner said he felt at home in Abydos, which has a grid structure much like Philadelphia. When he lived in Philadelphia's Art Museum area, he said, his house was similar in scale to one of the smaller rowhouses in Abydos.

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