This small (1.8 x 1.9 cm) piece of incised bone doesn’t look like much, but it comes from one of Pharaonic Egypt’s most hallowed places. The Umm el-Qaab (Arabic for ‘Mother of Pots’) area of Abydos was the burial place of the first kings of Egypt. Abydos was sacred to later Egyptians as the cult centre of the Osiris, the god of the dead and of rebirth. Many hoped to make a pilgrimage to the site and those that did left offerings, evidenced by millions of pottery vessels – giving the area its modern Arabic name.
From as early as the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 BC), one of the early royal tombs was believed to be the actual burial place of Osiris. This tomb in fact belonged to Djer, probably the third king of the First Dynasty (c. 3000 BC). When the tomb was first excavated – albeit rather hastily – by Frenchman Emile Amélineau (1850-1915) in 1898 the central chamber was found to contain a basalt image of Osiris lying on a funerary bed. This monument was dedicated by a king during the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-1550 BC) as a way of demonstrating his piety towards Osiris.
Amélineau’s excavations at Abydos were taken over by the British Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), whose finds form a large part of the Manchester collection. Petrie’s careful work brought to light much that his French counterpart had either overlooked or discarded – including this small bone tag naming king Djer, the owner of the tomb.
Djer’s was the first royal tomb purpose-built to house plentiful supplies for the king’s use in the afterlife – including his servants, who appear to have been killed and buried in subsidiary graves to serve their king in the afterlife. Storage chambers contained pots, as well as model tools and weapons. Inscribed animal bone tags were used to label bags or other containers of food and drink. Examples such as our tag simply give the king’s name, framed inside a serekh and topped by a falcon representing Horus – god of kingship. The royal name is written with a single sign – a hieroglyph with the phonetic value djer – identifying to whom the contents belonged.
Petrie’s excavations revealed that the tomb’s extensive wooden elements had been damaged by fire. This perhaps occurred during the First Intermediate Period, as implied by the mention of desecration of the Abydos royal tombs in the literary text ‘The Instruction for King Merikare’.
When Djer’s tomb was reinterpreted as the ‘tomb of Osiris’ some time during the Middle Kingdom, evidence – such as our little bone tag – remained to identify the grave’s original occupant. Maybe these fragments of Egypt’s (already very ancient) history were never recognised… or perhaps they were deliberately ignored in favour of the association with Osiris, whose burial place attracted so many pilgrims.