Team unearths key to the city

When we think of ancient Egypt, we generally think of pyramids and pharaohs, sphinxes and sand, obelisks and other monumental stuff.

We certainly don’t think of municipal government.

“The monumental remains of Egypt are dominated by the temples and tombs of the pharaohs,” said Josef Wegner (Gr’96), assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies and assistant curator of the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Near East section. “They dominate modern thinking, so we lose sight of the fact that Egypt was an amazingly well-organized society -- the cradle of bureaucracy.”

Wegner and a team of Penn and Yale archaeologists have been working at a town site in Abydos, Egypt, since 1994 to correct that misconception. And a find they made this summer may go a long way toward that goal.

Members of the Penn-Yale team dig out the house of the mayor of Enduring-are-the-places-of-Khakaure-maa-kheru-in-Abydos earlier this year.

Wegner and his colleagues unearthed a residence belonging to the mayor of a large Egyptian town from the Middle Kingdom period (ca. 1850-1650 B.C.) The house, situated in the ancient town of Enduring-are-the-Places-of-Khakaure-maa-kheru-in-Abydos, is the largest nonroyal house yet found in a Middle Kingdom town and the first to be positively identified as belonging to an Egyptian mayor.

The house’s size may be accounted for in part by the town’s size. “It was large for a town of its time -- 300 to 400 meters square,” Wegner said. Like many Middle Kingdom towns, it was established as a royal initiative and dedicated to the service of a nearby mortuary temple, in this case that of King Senwosret III (1878-1841 B.C.).

The house functioned as both the mayor’s residence and his office -- “more like the White House than City Hall,” Wegner said. And the things the team found there provide insight into the mayor’s place in society and his duties as a minor executive.

Like his modern American counterpart, the Egyptian mayor devoted a great deal of his time to raising and spending revenue. And he also oversaw a sizable bureaucracy of local officials. But he also served a religious function, as the overseer of the priests in the temple, and a judicial one as well, hearing and deciding on complaints from town residents.

He also apparently controlled a great deal of the town’s wealth, judging from the size of the house. “It’s clear that [the mayor] was on a par in wealth and influence with the kings of the period,” Wegner said, based on the excavations.

Unlike his latter-day cousins, though, he did not have to campaign for election: the office was hereditary, and the family that filled it came from an elite circle of families with close ties to the royal court.

But did ancient city governents suffer from the corruption that perodically besets modern ones? Wegner can’t say. “There’s no archaeological evidence of bribes, but from the seal impressions, we find that a huge amount of written correspondence passed through this house.

“I’m hoping that in the future we can come across the remnants of the papyruses themselves. It would offer the kind of evidence you can’t get from the archaeological record alone.”

Wegner will deliver a talk, “Between King and Commoner: The Discovery of the Mansion of an Ancient Egyptian Mayor,” on Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Museum, 33rd and Spruce streets. For more information, call 215-898-4890.

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Originally published on October 14, 1999