Secrets of Saqqara

6 mins read

Almost 45 years excavating an Egyptian necropolis

For over three millennia, Saqqara served as a necropolis where pharaohs and the elite could be entombed in extravagant monuments. Christian Greco and Lara Weiss reveal how a chance detail on a 19th-century map set in train a longstanding archaeological expedition, which is providing a fresh appreciation of how ancient Egyptians interacted with their past.

The excavation of Saqqara taking place, with a pyramid in the background
Archaeological work underway at Saqqara, with Pharaoh Djoser’s step pyramid visible in the background. This desert plateau received burials for over 3,000 years. [Image: Leiden-Turin Expedition to Saqqara / Nico Staring]

Saqqara is a modern village situated about 30km south of Cairo and nestled at the foot of a desert plateau. This living settlement has also lent its name to an extraordinary complex for the dead, which developed near the ancient city of Memphis. Its importance was such that the very cream of society – in some periods, up to and including pharaohs – secured space for their own tombs upon the desert plateau. Some of these monuments remain impressive to this day, while the draw of Saqqara was such that gods and ancestors were venerated at the necropolis throughout almost the entire history of ancient Egypt. This popularity has bequeathed a site with an extraordinary time depth.

One fine example of this longevity is the area where the Leiden-Turin Expedition – a joint archaeological mission of the Dutch Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (RMO; National Museum of Antiquities) in Leiden and the Museo Egizio in Turin – has been excavating since 1975. It lies to the south of a causeway leading to the pyramid of Pharaoh Unas (c.2322 BC), and is best known for its monumental New Kingdom temple tombs, which were built a thousand years later, more or less betweenthe reigns of Tutankhamun and Ramesses II (c.1324-1213 BC). Over the decades, our expedition has uncovered 12 of these New Kingdom tombs and many smaller ones. As the project approaches its first half-century, we look back over how it came about, and what has been discovered.

A diagram of the necropolis
A map of the Saqqara necropolis, showing details of the tombs excavated by the Leiden-Turin expedition. [Image: By Nico Staring, and modified by Kathrin Hero]

City of the dead

Traditionally, the ancient Egyptians built tombs for three reasons. As well as providing an underground chamber where the corpse could be buried, the above-ground elements presented an accessible venue where offerings of food, drink, and incense could be made to sustain the deceased in the afterlife and commemorate them. Most pharaonic pyramids were connected to funerary temples in the Nile Valley via lengthy causeways, while high officials often favoured what are known as mastaba tombs, where rectangular funerary chapels were placed directly above their burial chambers.

The earliest tombs at Saqqara belong to the Early Dynastic period, when the first Egyptian pharaohs moved their cemetery from Abydos to Saqqara (c.2700 BC). We know that these kings and their officials created large subterranean complexes at the site, but the appearance of the corresponding above-ground elements is less certain at Saqqara, as these often fell into decay and were eventually overlain by later generations’ tombs. About a century later, during the Old Kingdom, Pharaoh Djoser built the world’s first monumental edifice (c.2566 BC): his striking step pyramid complex, which still dominates the site.

Although the 4th-Dynasty Pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure famously elected to raise their pyramids a few kilometres further north at Giza (c.2500-2450 BC), the last king of that line, Shepseskaf, returned to Saqqara for burial in a grandiose mastaba tomb. The site went on to be favoured by many 5th- and 6th-Dynasty kings, who founded pyramids that are renowned for the hieroglyphic texts adorning their inner walls. These are known, appropriately enough, as the pyramid texts, and contain spells designed to aid the deceased in the afterlife. Naturally, where pharaohs led, high officials followed, and numerous elite functionaries were interred in tombs at Saqqara, allowing them to lie close to their kings.

Saqqara’s prominence slipped in the Middle Kingdom and early New Kingdom (c.1980-1500 BC), when Memphis ceased to be the capital city. Although the settlement remained important, other burial grounds became more attractive, with most of the New Kingdom pharaohs receiving tombs in the celebrated Valley of the Kings near Thebes. It was only around the mid-18th Dynasty (c.1480 BC) that high officials returned to Saqqara. This renaissance saw burial chambers cut into the plateau cliff-face, while temple tombs were also erected, like those within the excavation area of the Leiden-Turin Expedition. After the New Kingdom, subsequent generations continued to bury their dead nearby (from c.1076 BC onwards). In Late Antiquity, the Christian monastery of Jeremiah was also founded in the area of the former necropolis (c.AD 500-850), just a stone’s throw east of the Leiden-Turin excavations.

All told, then, tombs and temples were built at Saqqara over a span of more than 3,000 years. During that period, ancient traditions – just like those today – were subject to change, with art and architecture, the ancient Egyptian language, and religious practices all evolving over the centuries. Our excavations at the site are allowing us to examine such shifts, while also revealing more and more about the life and death of those interred among the great and the good at Saqqara. This research agenda is wider than the aims that originally brought the expedition to the site in 1975. Understanding those initial objectives is, though, key to appreciating where we are now, making it necessary to look back to the earliest years of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden.

When Saqqara came to Leiden

The special relationship between the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (RMO) and Saqqara began towards the beginning of the 19th century. The museum was founded in 1818, shortly after the Netherlands became a kingdom. Its newly installed monarch saw cultural politics as a way to gain international prestige, and invested generously in his new national collection of antiquities. For the museum’s Egyptian Department, the acquisition of over 3,000 objects amassed by Giovanni d’Anastasi, a Swedish-Norwegian consul in Egypt, was of paramount importance. Indeed, in terms of raw numbers this still amounts to about 12% of the Egyptian collection. More important, however, are the quality and size of the d’Anastasi objects, which are such that the RMO ranks among the top ten museums with Egyptian collections worldwide. Saqqara highlights from the Leiden collection include over life-sized funerary statues of Maya and Merit, a husband and wife, and the tomb reliefs of Horemheb, a general who rose to become King of Egypt.

Three statues on display in the museum
Objects from Saqqara in the RMO collection includes the tomb statues of Maya and Merit, seen as currently displayed in the museum. [Image: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden / Robbert Jan Looman]
An excavation photo showing a 19th-century basket
A 19th-century basket still lying where it was left by a gang of antiquities dealers hunting for treasure. [Image: Leiden-Turin Expedition to Saqqara / Paolo Del Vesco]

Naturally, the first collections that came to Leiden are in themselves artefacts of a time when numerous antique traders were digging for Egyptian art. These treasure hunters sought to please wealthy Europeans living in Egypt by securing high-quality artefacts, which were then sold to major American and European museums. Our excavations have shown just how systematic their prospecting was, with test pits opened every few metres across the site. Such traders had no interest in recording the context where artefacts were found. Instead, individual tombs were dismantled and their contents scattered around the world. As a result, the find spots of many objects that circulated on the art market are not known and can only occasionally be reconstructed from clues in the text adorning some artefacts, or when a section of relief in a museum joins with another one found during modern excavations.

A relief carving on stone
The tomb relief of General Horemheb is also in the RMO collection. [Image: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden / Robbert Jan Looman]

Extraction methods became more refined following the dawn of scientific excavations. In the case of Saqqara, the Prussian expedition led by Carl Richard Lepsius was important. He stayed at the site for a few weeks and, in 1843, published the results of the expedition in a monumental series, which included a map of the area and several drawings of tomb reliefs from the tomb of Maya and Merit. By then, the d’Anastasi collection had already been in Leiden for 14 years. That the statues belonging to the tomb relief Lepsius’ team drew were in the RMO was no longer known. This connection was spotted by Geoffrey Martin in the 1970s, who convinced the Egypt Exploration Society and the Leiden museum to endeavour to relocate the tomb of Maya and Merit. Although this had long since been swallowed up by the desert sands, its location was noted on Lepsius’ map.

Looking back now, it is extraordinary to think that when Geoffrey Martin and his team arrived at the area of Saqqara now assigned to the Leiden-Turin Expedition, they saw nothing but sand. This situation changed quickly. In 1975, the tomb of General Horemheb was found, which unsurprisingly caused a historical sensation, while the tomb of Maya and Merit was eventually tracked down about 25m north of where it was expected, based on Lepsius’ map. At some point, the Egypt Exploration Society withdrew from the collaboration, and in 1999 Leiden University became a partner. In 2015, a fruitful co-operation also began between the RMO and the Museo Egizio in Turin. Despite the decades of work dedicated to the site, enough remains for another 40 years or more of excavation. Indeed, the entirety of the Saqqara necropolis covers over 18km². Much of that area remains unexplored, and doubtless many tombs still lie shrouded beneath the sands, awaiting (re)discovery.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 103 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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