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Uncovering Ancient Mayoral Digs in Egypt

It must have been a "very vibrant" building, says Dr. Josef Wegner C’89, as well as a large and handsomely appointed one. The town mayor and his officials would have been there, working on economic transactions. Scribes would be coming in and out, counting the grain. Cosmetic vessels and mirrors with handles of ebony and ivory suggest the presence of wives. Children would be running around or playing games such as Hounds and Jackals. Even legal cases were probably adjudicated there.
   
Last summer, Wegner—assistant curator at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and assistant professor of Egyptology—and a Penn-led team confirmed that the building they discovered back in 1994 was indeed the residence of the mayor of the ancient Egyptian town of "Enduring-are-the-Places-of-Khakaure-maa-kheru-in-Abydos."
   
"Never before in ancient Egypt do we have the physical remains of a mayor’s house that’s identified as such," says Wegner. "So now we can study in detail the realities of an ancient mayor—how he lived and what he did in the community."
   
The town appears to have been organized around the mortuary temple of the Pharaoh Senwosret III (1878-1841 B.C.), since temples were the religious centers of communities.
   
"Pharaohs in ancient Egypt were sacred beings," explains Wegner. "When they died, they became ‘fully divine,’ unified with a number of different gods. One of the primary ones was Osiris, the god of the dead. And Abydos is particularly important from that respect because it is the major cult center dedicated to Osiris."
   
While a pyramid for Senwosret exists in the north, not far from Cairo, Wegner believes that he was actually buried in Abydos. The archaeology team knows that a tomb for Senwosret exists there, but excavating it is a task for another season.
   
The team—which also includes scholars from Yale University and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University—discovered "Enduring-are-the-Places-of-Khakaure-maa-kheru-in-Abydos" in 1994, but it would be another three years before it uncovered this "very large residential unit" near the temple. At the time, they had no idea who had lived there, and it would be a while before they realized just how large—some 45,000 square feet —it was. But from the layout of the rooms—not to mention the frescoes, limestone thresholds and imported cedar doorways—it was clear that it was an elite residence of some kind.
   
But it was more than just a residence, Wegner points out: "The day-to-day business of the mayor was centered also in this building. There’s a lot of remnants of administrative records, documents with seal impressions of viziers and kings and local officials, scribes and priests." There were also "massive granaries"—and grain was not just a food but a major currency of the era.
   
The residence was probably occupied by a "sequence of mayors through a period of about two centuries," Wegner believes, and the office of mayor was presumably handed down from father to son. There may have been an important in-law, too: "In one area we found a tremendous number of seal impressions that come from a royal princess, the pharaoh’s daughter, so that suggests that one of these mayors may have been of a stature that he was married into the royal family."
   
He describes the function of the town as a "big planned settlement that the state planned in order to maintain the economic foundation and keep the temple running," noting that the mayors themselves carried the title "Overseer of the Temple." And Wegner suggests that not just the size but the very existence of the residence may have political undertones.
   
"The Middle Kingdom in Egypt was one of the most bureaucratized periods of Egyptian history," he explains. "The administration was becoming so complex that it was taking power away from the king—sort of a decentralization of the centralized state structure. And late in the 12th century, when this place was established under Senwosret III, there seemed to be attempts to re-centralize the governmental system." Certain specific offices were promoted by the pharaoh "to be pulled more tightly under the umbrella of the royal government," he notes, and one of the offices appears to have been that of town mayor.
   
So far, the team has excavated about half of the building. "I would say we have two more major seasons of work before we’ll have exposed the entirety of the building," says Wegner. "And at that point, we’ll integrate all the information into a complete analysis of how the building worked."
   
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