The Toronto Abydos Votive Zone Project (TAVZ) is an ongoing archaeological field project of the University of Toronto in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania-Yale University-Institute of Fine Arts, New York University Expedition to Abydos. The project is directed by Professor Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner, whose interests in landscape archaeology and popular religious practice in the ancient Egyptian context guide the investigation into the development of the ceremonial environment associated with the god Osiris-Khentyimentiu at Abydos. The project focuses on an area adjacent to the main Osiris temple, a site known as the "Votive Zone" due to the concentration of small chapels of elites and objects that ordinary Egyptians deposited there.
Abydos formed the setting for an annual religious performance in which the murder and resurrection of Osiris were re-enacted, highlighting the god’s resurrection and allowing pilgrims to share in it. Votive activity can be traced through archaeological deposits outside of the main temple and along the processional route that led to the god's conceptual tomb, where rituals of his transformation took place. This evidence from the roads and pathways through the landscape, often overlooked in early investigations of Egyptian religion that focused on the temples themselves, gives us crucial insight into the beliefs and practices of the ancient Egyptian populace. The project aims to recover these sources of evidence, and through analysis of artifactual material and its spatial distribution within the geography of the site, to identify patterns of practice in specific periods of utilization. In addition, the participation of individuals from many different socio-economic levels in the activities associated with the Osiris cult at the site allows for the exploration of social organization. Recent research building on these objectives has highlighted the meanings with which the environment was invested, particularly the conceptualization of the Votive Zone as a site associated with rebirth, in which the goddesses Heket, Isis, and Nut figured prominently.
Fieldwork at the site also led to the discovery of a previously unknown chapel of Thutmose III (ca. 1450 BCE) that produced dramatic new evidence of state patronage and of the interaction between royal initiatives and popular religious practices in the development of the site. The chapel was in use for over 1500 years, attesting to its continuing importance long after its initial construction. The remains of the last generation of sacred trees in its forecourt, dating from the late Ptolemaic period, indicate that it was still a vibrant place of worship in that time.
The Thutmose III chapel is just one of a number of royal monuments at the site. The 2011 excavation season of the Toronto Abydos Votive Zone Project began the investigation of a large structure of the Ramesside period at the site, which was re-used for elite burials during the subsequent Third Intermediate Period and then later for the deposition of dog mummies in honour of the local jackal deities Wepwawet and Khentyimentiu. The complex layering of different phases of use in the Votive Zone presents both challenges and significant opportunities for understanding relationships between Egyptians of different social classes in specific periods of history and also for exploring the thread of memory that tied these ancient dedicants to their past, allowing them to reimagine and transform the landscape according to their needs and changing beliefs.
The Toronto Abydos Votive Zone project has welcomed the participation of numerous colleagues, including scholars and specialists as well as students. We are grateful for the help and support of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, including the Permanent Committee and previous Directors General Drs. Gamal abd el-Nasser, Abd el-Halim Nour ed-Din, and Ali Hassan, the staff of the Sohaj Ministry of Antiquities and the Balliyana Inspectorate, and our outstanding inspectors, Ayman Mohamed Damarany, Barakat 'Eid Ahmed, Adel Makary, Mohammed Gamal Sa'ad ed-Din, and Mahmoud Mustafa Mohamed. The work of the project depends upon the expertise of Reis Ebrahim Mohamed Ali and the teams of quftis and workmen under his supervision, and Ahmed Ragab Mohamed and Sinjab abd el-Rahman, who keep the Expedition house and laboratory running.
Many other researchers have contributed to the work of the project. Prof. Richard Jasnow has published some of the demotic inscriptions from the Votive Zone. Among the people who have participated in fieldwork over the years are archaeological site supervisors: Ellen Morris, Dawn Landua McCormack, Laurel Flentye, Kurt Wegner, Amber Hutchinson, and Janet James; ceramicists: Brian Smith, Geoffrey Metz, and Meredith Brand; epigraphers: Mark Stone and Christina Geisen; archaeological illustrators: Tamara Bower and John Ellsworth; surveyors: David Goodman and Nubie abd el-Basit Hassan Khalifa; and conservator: Mahmoud Hassan Mohamed. University of Toronto graduates including Julie Patenaude, François Roy, Elizabeth Paliatics, Erin Kerr, and Marina Wilding Brown have provided essential assistance with recording and processing evidence from the site. The recent Ph.D. dissertations of Drs. Janet James, Meredith Brand, and Amber Hutchinson utilized archaeological material recovered from the project's fieldwork at Abydos. The Toronto Abydos Votive Zone project continues to involve students and scholars in research that extends our understanding of ancient Egyptian society, culture, and religious practices.