North Tomb 1
This structure is the largest of any occurring in the North Tomb Group and is located at the southern end of the group, isolated from the remainder. In 1908, H. E. Winlock visited the site and he recorded the monument in a series of photographs. Those taken within the structure revealed that the central chamber was sandstone-lined and decorated with mortuary scenes of Pharaonic type. The room had been cleared by B. Moritz prior to this, during a brief trip to the oasis in 1900, but only a preliminary report of the work was ever published. In the time between Winlock’s recording of the monument and excavations conducted by Monash University in 2000, considerable deterioration had occurred and the majority of the stone from the central chamber had been either removed or destroyed. Only the lower portions of its walls remain and part of its stone floor.
Very few traces of the original Pharaonic decoration were recovered amongst the stone and brick rubble filling the room. A study of the scenes revealed in the photographs did, however, permit a date in the early 1st century CE to be assigned to the paintings. The tomb consists of a free-standing entrance porch and four rooms comprising the internal core, one of which is a transverse hall and allows access to the others. This core is about 12 square meters and stood about 5m in height; surrounding it is an inner corridor. The whole complex appears to have been set within a wall enclosure situated about 5m from the tomb.
The entrance ways from the porch through to the central chamber create an axial alignment. The porch was provided with screen walls set between 10 columns with attached vertical torus mouldings that may have once supported cavetto cornices. Its walls were painted alternately in monochrome red or yellow both inside and out. The corner columns are double-engaged and have piers at the exterior to form the corners while those that flank the doors have attached piers to form doorjambs. Entry into the transverse hall was through a doorway with sandstone jambs and was originally closed by double doors. A significant quantity of sandstone fragments inscribed with Greek was discovered in this room, which may have belonged to a lintel placed over the outer door into the tomb commemorating the construction of it and those for whom it was built. Fragments of painted sandstone, one with a uraeus, were also found indicating that one of the stone doorways may have once supported a cornice decorated with a winged disc flanked by uraei.
It appears that the north and south ends of Room 1 (transverse hall) were vaulted, but the space in front of Room 3 (central chamber) seems to have been left open. The northern section of the vaulted roof was originally decorated with a classical coffer motif. This comprises a design executed in polychrome that includes geometric elements and floral and faunal features. The walls in this part of the room are yellow. At the southern end, the walls are decorated red with yellow squares on the lower part. The columns on either side of the door into the central stone room are also decorated in polychrome; the northern one with elements imitating fluting.
The interior walls of the entrance into Room 1 were decorated with figures, which are likely to represent divine identities. It is probable that Room 3 was vaulted with stone while the chambers flanking it, Rooms 2 and 4, were constructed of mud-brick and were roofed by barrel-vaults. The northern chamber, Room 4, is painted red and the southern room, Room 2, is painted yellow, both to heights mid-way of the walls. Sandstone paving occurred throughout all of the rooms and it is likely that the doors throughout the tomb were of wood as numerous examples of large iron nails typically used to secure timbers to a frame were found.
The tomb underwent alterations at some point in time, indicated by secondary wall painting in the transverse hall and at least two architectural phases that were observed in some of the features belonging to the other rooms. Stepping leading into Room 3 was found to obscure the original door jambs, fragments of a well-carved sandstone offering table were discovered built into the jamb of the door through the northern wall of Room 1, and secondary flooring was evident in Rooms 1, 2 and 4. Little evidence survives to indicate the location of the original burials. The floors of the three western chambers are pitted and later burials, mostly all mixed and disturbed, were found in 6 graves cut through the stone floors in Rooms 2 and 3. All were orientated east-west with heads on the west and little in the way of grave goods indicating that they may be the burials of Christians. The fragment of a gypsum seal with the impression of a crux ansata was found in Grave 3, which lends support to this interpretation. Most of the ceramics from the tomb date to the 4th century. Nonetheless, fragments of the finely worked offering table and a probable ceramic headrest predate the suggested Christian use of the tomb.
During the following fieldseason in 2001, a further 18 graves were investigated and found to contain burials in various states of preservation. Several of these were complete or near-complete bodies while many of the other graves contained disarticulated and disturbed human remains; one grave was found empty. All of the burials located in the corridors surrounding the core of the tomb contained the remains of small children. Work in the core chambers, which concentrated on the floor levels, revealed that Rooms 1, 2 and 4 were originally gypsum-plastered, but had been replaced by stone floors. The floor in Room 3 was originally of stone, but this had been removed almost completely. It is clear that the majority of the graves post-date the original use of the tomb. The cuts for the graves were all dug through the stone floors or made when the latter had been partially removed.
All were orientated east-west and where the body remained, its head was positioned on the west. Once again, it is possible to identify the buried as Christians. Most of the bodies of adults had been disturbed to some degree and in some cases it appears that they were dug up, had their wrappings removed and were then dumped back into the grave. A search was made for the locations of original burials below the floors and paving of Room 1, yet no subterranean chambers were found. Two pits were discovered in Room 1, but it could not be determined whether they predate the laying of the floor, and neither contained interments. It is concluded that the original burials were probably placed within the 3 western rooms, either in coffins or upon funerary beds, though no trace of these was found. An estimated minimum of 35 individuals are represented by the remains found within the tomb.
An extensive list of publications relating to Ismant el-Kharab is available for consultation.