Excavation in Egypt at Tell el-Balamun

The elite cemetery of dynasty 22 at the front of the main temple

Excavating the burial of the Vizier Iken in 1998

Placing the tombs of important individuals at the front of major temples was a practice of the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period, the most famous examples of which are the royal tombs at Tanis. In the 1998 and 1999 seasons at Tell el-Balamun, a small cluster of tombs dating from the Twenty-second Dynasty was found in front of the temple of Amun, just to the west of the axis. Three tombs remained identifiable, although there was evidence that there may originally have been at least two more.

Examples of the Shabtis of Iken First to be discovered was the brick-built tomb of a Lower Egyptian Vizier, named Iken, who had been equipped with fairly lavish burial goods for the period.

Although partly robbed in antiquity, there remained a considerable quantity of gold leaf from the embellishment of the coffin, much of it in the form of narrow strips from a headdress. A pair of bronze-framed inlaid eyes were found, once fitted to the mask of the coffin.

Several amuletic figurines of deities were found on the body, together with  a granite heart scarab which bore not only the names of Iken and his mother, but also the cartouche of King Osorkon I (924-889 BC). This provided a welcome piece of fixed dating evidence.

To the south of the head lay three stone vases and a whole array of glazed faience shabti-figures, which were excavated with difficulty from the hard mud. Each figure bore the name of Iken in black paint.

Looking down on the roof of the limestone chamber for a burialTo the east of the tomb of Iken lay a second tomb of mud-brick, but it proved to be empty of any burials. The interior had been dug out in the sixth century BC and subsequently cut by a large rubbish pit of Ptolemaic date.

Further east was a third tomb containing three burials, a young adult male (Burial 3/i), an older male (Burial 3/ii), and a child (Burial 3/iii).

The younger man lay in a stone-lined chamber which had been constructed within the brickwork of the tomb. Unfortunately, on lifting the roofing-blocks, the chamber was found to have been Chamber of a burial partly opened, showing the water insideentirely flooded by subsoil water, which had to be removed during the excavation. The body lay extended on its back with the head to the west and the arms crossed on the chest. Crystallised salts in the water had preserved the imprint of linen mummification wrappings and the grain of wood from a coffin.

As further evidence, two pairs of bronze eyes from inlays in coffins were found. At the foot of the chamber was a set of limestone Canopic Jars and a pottery vessel, all uninscribed.

This burial was separated by a narrow brick wall from another to the north, where the body of the older man was found lying in a limestBurial in a stone-lined chamber one sarcophagus.

The lid had been broken at the time of burial and the breaks patched with stone fragments, but in spite of Ptolemaic pits having been dug down to the top of the coffin, it had not been disturbed.

Like the burial in the first chamber, it had been damaged by water, but once again the inlaid eyes from the coffins were recovered. More significant was the finding of an additional pair of inlaid eyes in the form of those of a falcon, together with a bronze falcon beak.

These remains show that one of the three coffins of this individual was equipped with a falcon-faced mask, a very rare fashion known to have been shared by only three other individuals from The child burialancient Egypt, all belonging to the royal family of Dynasty 22: King Osorkon II, King Sheshonq II and the High-Priest of Amun Harsiese.

In the final burial in tomb 3, that of the child (left), the finding of another bronze beak showed that this burial had also possessed a falcon-mask coffin.

The body of the child was contained in a rectangular limestone sarcophagus, placed at a higher level and on a different orientation from the others. This suggests that its addition to the tomb may have been the result of an unexpected, early death.

On the floor of the sarcophagus the imprint of the inner coffin was visible.

To merit burial so close to the temple and to have coffins with falcon-masks, the occupants of the Balamun tombs must have been of high status, probably priests of the temple and relatives of the royal family of the Twenty-Second Dynasty.


Images (from top):

  • Excavating the burial of the Vizier Iken in 1998
  • Examples of the shabtis of Iken
  • Looking down on the roof of the limestone chamber for burial 3/i
  • Chamber of burial 3/i partly opened, showing the water inside
  • Burial 3/i in the stone-lined chamber
  • The child burial