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Socialising the landscape in the early ancient Egyptian state: the cemetery of the early Old Kingdom at Zawyet Sultan

The project contributes to current debates on the early ancient Egyptian state and its development in local landscapes and settlement contexts. The focus of the project is placed on the excavation, scientific analysis and publication of the recently discovered cemetery of the early Old Kingdom (ca. 2700-2500 BC) at Zawyet Sultan, Egypt, as well as its interpretation in the wider historical and archaeological context. The cemetery is of special interest due to its chronological setting, its location in the local landscape and the social profile of individuals buried here. It was used as a burial ground for the local community of Hebenu, an ancient Egyptian provincial capital, the archaeological remains of which are located next to the village of Zawyet Sultan in Middle Egypt, ca. 10 km South to the city of el-Minya.

Different from other provincial sites, where elite tombs dominate the archaeological record, the cemetery of Zawyet Sultan includes burials of individuals of lower social standing. Historically, the use of the cemetery falls into a period of increased political centralisation. In order to strengthen royal representation in the provincial hinterland, kings of the early Old Kingdom erected small pyramids at several sites in the Nile Valley, including at Hebenu. However, the location and role of the pyramids in their local contexts is poorly understood. The investigation of the contemporary cemetery at Zawyet Sultan offers an excellent opportunity for modelling the spatial interplay of cemetery, pyramid and settlement in their local landscape.

The project combines excavation with geophysical survey, archaeobotanical analysis, the study of human remains and conservation. Departing from the results of the analysis, the cemetery will be compared to similar provincial cemeteries, positioned in the local and regional funerary landscape and embedded in the extant settlement remains at the site. The project will thus shed light on the social organisation and funerary practices in a region of Egypt, which is archaeologically comparatively poorly documented.