Deborah Vischak reveals the dynamics of ancient Egypt

By Tom Garlinghouse

Ancient Egypt, with its monumental pyramids, temples, and sculptures, is often seen as a civilization frozen in time, as unchanging and predictable, perhaps, as the annual rise and fall of the Nile River, an event so regular that the Egyptians based their calendar on it.

“As popular as ancient Egypt is for many people, there is nonetheless a sense, even today, that it almost wasn’t real,” said Deborah Vischak, assistant professor of art and archaeology, and a specialist in Egyptology.

Vischak wants to change this perception. For her, this conventional narrative doesn’t capture the massive sweep of time — encompassing a span of over 3,000 years — represented by Egyptian culture and society. Nor does it give much insight into the everyday lives of people, both commoners and elites, from that era. Ancient Egypt, Vischak said, was much more dynamic and creative than the more traditional narrative suggests.

“Ancient Egyptians were people like any other. They cared about their jobs, their families — they fought with each other, they fell in love.”

Deborah Vischak, assistant professor of art and archaeology

To capture this more nuanced picture of ancient Egypt and its inhabitants, Vischak and a team of American and Egyptian archaeologists are excavating at one of the oldest sites in Egypt, Abydos. With a history extending back 5,000 years, Abydos is located in the southern part of the country, nearly 400 kilometers south of Cairo along the Nile. “It’s the burial place of the very first kings of Egypt,” Vischak said.

This early Old Kingdom cemetery at Abydos, home of Egypt’s first pharaohs, tells of a time when the ancient site lost prominence as the kings moved their burials north, to the capital Memphis, near Cairo. Photo by Ayman Damarany

Today, few standing monuments survive at Abydos, and rural villages encroach and encircle the desert site, located on the west bank of the Nile between the edge of the river valley and the enclosing desert cliffs to the west. Spanning nearly seven square kilometers, Abydos contains a rich collection of ancient material, including vast cemeteries and royal temples.

Chief among these are the Temple of Seti I, which is the main draw for most tourists, and the Shunet el-Zebib, a weathered mud-brick funerary monument belonging to one of Egypt’s earliest kings, Khasekhemwy. The conservation of this 5,000-year-old monument — one of the oldest standing burial structures in the world — is an important part of the project.

Excavations at Abydos began in the late 1960s under veteran Egyptologist David O’Connor of New York University. For over 50 years, O’Connor explored the vast site, slowly piecing together its complex history, and often focusing on the less explored aspects of Egyptian history. Vischak, who became co-director of the project in 2018 along with Matthew Adams of New York University, has carried on O’Connor’s vision.

Vischak, Adams and Reis Ibrahim Mohamed ‘Ali, the archaeological foreman, are concentrating their research efforts at a non-royal cemetery at the north end of the site, near the Shunet. The cemetery dates primarily to the Old Kingdom (ca. 2700–2000 BCE), though it was used in later periods. “What I want to look at is how this cemetery speaks to us today,” Vischak said. “What can we tell about the community by what they left behind for us?”

Last year, Vischak uncovered a diverse array of Old Kingdom artifacts in the cemetery, including pottery sherds, beads, jewelry, ceramic vessels, and numerous funerary and votive offerings.

Map showing location of Abydos

Collectively the cemetery and these artifacts document a time when Abydos had lost its prominence as a royal site. Djoser, an Old Kingdom pharaoh and Khasekhemwy’s heir, left the royal ancestral burial grounds of Abydos behind, moving his funerary monument north close to the capital city of Memphis, near modern-day Cairo. Abydos was transformed into something of a backwater.

Vischak is interested in what this transition meant to the area’s inhabitants. What economic, social and political changes occurred as a result of this alteration in their fortunes?

Vischak’s findings indicate that although the kings left Abydos behind, the local community continued on, and they took part in the same religious and funerary traditions shared across the country, though in a significantly different kind of sacred landscape. In the next millennium, 700 years later, the site became an important sacred center, attracting the devotees of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld and the deity responsible for judging souls in the afterlife.

Through these excavations, the team is discovering that Egyptian history was not simply a long arc of people who had a uniform experience but was much more nuanced.

“It’s all real history,” Vischak said. “It was rich and complicated.”