• EraPharaonic
  • Project DirectorDr. Nicholas Warner (ARCE) and Ashraf Okasha (Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)
  • LocationAbydos
  • AffiliationAmerican Research Center in Egypt
  • Project SponsorWorld Monuments Fund 
  • Project Dates:January 2023 – January 2025

Written by: Sally El Sabbahy, Nicholas Warner, and Jeff Allen 

In early 2023, World Monuments Fund (WMF) received funding from the Selz Foundation to support ARCE’s conservation work at the Osireion and the development, by both WMF and ARCE, of the first-ever site management plan covering the historic site of Abydos in Upper Egypt.

The plan will include conservation intervention measures at the Osireion, new facilities to help improve the visitor experience across key areas of the site, and measures to foster and broaden stakeholder engagement in the management and care of Abydos. This exciting and highly collaborative project links ARCE with counterparts at the WMF and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MoTA). 

 Abydos was the most important burial site in ancient Egypt, with a history that extends back some 7,500 years. It served as the cult center of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris, ruler of the land of the dead, and as such, was a place of great religious importance. The burial place of Osiris was thought to be located at the tomb of one of the first dynasty pharaohs, Djer, who was buried in the desert to the west of Abydos. Many of Egypt’s earliest pharaohs built their funerary complexes there in the area known as Umm el-Qa’ab. The modern name means “Mother of the Pots” in Arabic, as the whole area is now littered with broken pot shards from offerings brought and deposited there in earlier times. 

Today, the Abydos site is dominated by the limestone temple of Seti I, behind which lies the Osireion. The Osireion is a mysterious and little-understood subterranean granite structure built by Seti I, originally accessed through the adjoining Merenptah Tunnel.

Other important archaeological remains at Abydos include Predynastic burials, Early Dynastic royal tombs, massive mud brick enclosures such as the Shunet el-Zebib, one of the earliest surviving Old Kingdom towns, multiple cemeteries, and pyramids from different periods, a temple constructed by Ramses II, animal cemeteries of the Ptolemaic era, and earlyChristian monastic structures. Archaeological and risk factors combined to make Abydos an excellent candidate for inclusion in the 2022 World Monuments Watch, a biennial list of 25 significant heritage sites facing pressing challenges. 

A critical component of the project at Abydos is to undertake the physical conservation of selected priority monuments but to also develop a data-driven framework to support MoTA in conserving and caring for the site on a long-term basis. Accordingly, one of the objectives of the three-year project is to develop and deliver Abydos’s first comprehensive site management plan (SMP).

This will provide a framework for community and stakeholder engagement, identify priority areas for investments in visitor facilities, and give overall direction on developing the site in a way that prioritizes its historical value and reduces its overall risk exposure. Thorough and high-quality data collection and analysis are crucial to the development of a guidance document such as the SMP, and preliminary work had included researching and collecting data on the history of excavation and conservation at Abydos and assessing the risks threatening the site.

View of the 3D model generated by scanning and photogrammetry. Courtesy of CPT Studio

 From February to March and again in May 2023, a team from CPT Studio Roma carried out 3D scanning and digital documentation of the Osireion and its Merenptah Tunnel, as well as selected data captures of some internal spaces within the Seti I Temple. Completed in October 2023, the 3D model and its outputs provides a high-resolution baseline record of condition; something vital to conservation planning and a valuable resource for future analysis and data presentations.   

Photogrammetry capture inside the Merneptah tunnel. Photo ARCE staff

Another critical intervention was the structural conservation work undertaken at the Osireion itself. In June 2023, a team sponsored by ARCE-WMF from Cintec International installed stainless-steel anchors to three at-risk areas of monumental sandstone and granite masonry including at the entrance to the so-called Sarcophagus Room on the east side of the complex.

These areas had all been reinforced in the past with mild steel bars that had corroded, expanded, and caused significant stress to the historic structure. The new reinforcement was achieved by drilling 52 mm diameter holes in the masonry and inserting 20 mm diameter stainless-steel anchors up to 2.5 meters into the masonry within textile sleeves that were pressure grouted in place before being plugged with their face cores.  

Core drilling a cracked lintel at the entrance to the ‘sarcophagus chamber’ prior to the insertion of a stainless-steel anchor. Note the corroded steel cramps and ties from earlier conservation work in the foreground, above. Photo: Cintec International.

The month of May 2023 also saw the first steps towards implementing additional urgently needed physical improvements at the site. Concrete blocks were removed from inside the Sarcophagus Room, freeing up a significant volume of space, and a ‘robber hole’ in the northeast corner of the chamber was cleared of debris. Clearance work was also carried out on the north side of the Osireion in advance of creating a new, less intrusive, and comfortable visitor access staircase descending to the base of the complex.

Detail of the ceiling decoration of the ‘sarcophagus chamber’ showing the Goddess Nut. Photo ARCE staff.

These efforts were directed by MoTA colleagues Ayman al-Damarany and Mohamed al-Yazid and revealed numerous decorated fragments from the tunnel as well as seventy hieratic and demotic ostraca. The clearance work also revealed the location of the original transport ramp north of the Osireion. This was cut into the shale bedrock below the desert surface and served as a route along which to maneuver the massive granite and sandstone blocks into place before the entire structure was backfilled.

The excavation trench of the Merneptah Tunnel seen from the south after clearance of windblown sand and debris. The first traces of the newly discovered transport ramp are located at the center of the image. Photo: ARCE staff

The ramp is a truly remarkable and exciting discovery that will be further explored in 2024. 

CategoryARCE ProjectsTopicsArchaeology, Architecture, Conservation, RestorationThemeArchaeological SitesLocationAbydos Region