A digital 3D model offers a new way to visit this remarkable ancient Egyptian site.
The Saqqara necropolis, located 30km west of Cairo, is home to a wealth of ancient Egyptian tombs and pyramids. The burial ground was established near the ancient administrative city of Memphis during the Early Dynastic period (c.2900-2649 BC) and remained in use for more than 3,000 years, although its popularity varied over time. Many Old Kingdom (c.2649-2152 BC) tombs have been found at Saqqara, including Pharaoh Djoser’s Step Pyramid Complex (c.2630-2611), which still dominates the landscape today. Use of the site decreased in the 4th dynasty, when the pharaohs chose to build their pyramids at Giza instead, but Saqqara had returned to favour by the 5th and 6th dynasties. The cemetery lost popularity again in the Middle (c.2055-1650 BC) and early New Kingdom (c.1550 BC), but elite burials resumed in the mid-18th Dynasty (c.1480 BC) and continued in the area for many years afterwards.
Saqqara represents, through all its ups and downs, three millennia of ancient Egyptian history, politics, and culture. The site has been the focus of archaeological investigation for several centuries (CWA 103) and has produced many impressive discoveries, but among the most remarkable is a well-preserved tomb dating to the 5th Dynasty (c.2400 BC), discovered in November 2018 by a team led by Dr Mostafa Waziri, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt. The engravings on the tomb’s walls reveal that it belonged to Wahtye, a high-ranking official of King Neferirkare Kakai.
The discovery captured attention around the world as the subject of Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb, a Netflix documentary released in October 2020, at a time when physical visits to the site were rendered impossible by the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel restrictions currently remain in place, with Wahtye’s tomb just one of the many Egyptian heritage sites that are now off-limits to most visitors. In response to the situation, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has launched an initiative to make it possible to access some of these sites from home. As part of their ‘Experience Egypt from Home’ project, the Ministry commissioned 3D scans and digital models of a wide selection of heritage sites around the country, ranging from Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo to Tomb KV9 in the Valley of the Kings, as well as several sites at Saqqara, including Wahtye’s tomb.
The 3D scans were created in April 2020 by Ahmed Attia, founder of NAV3D, a company that specialises in 3D scanning and virtual tours. They use a combination of infrared and laser scanning devices, then present the data as an interactive model online using Matterport and other complementary platforms that host 3D models and virtual tours. Ahmed describes visiting and scanning these empty heritage sites as a unique and unforgettable experience.
The model of Wahtye’s tomb (click here to see it) offers a new way to explore the site’s most interesting features – in incredible detail. The ‘Dollhouse View’ feature clearly shows the shape of the structure, including the main rectangular gallery, which measures 10m by 3m and stands at 10m tall, as well as the location of the five shafts that contained the burials of Wahtye and his family: his wife Weret Ptah, his four children, and his mother Merit Meen. Despite Wahtye’s apparently elite status and the elaborate decoration of the main gallery, the burials themselves were notably lacking in luxury – his wife and children were buried standing up in narrow shaft graves without coffins, while Wahtye himself was mummified relatively poorly and buried in a plain wooden coffin bearing his name.
Analysis of the skeletal remains found in the tomb, carried out by Dr Amira Shaheen, suggests that the whole family was suffering from poor health. Evidence of cystic swelling and distension was identified in the bones of Wahtye and his mother, while the fact that his children all appear to have died young, at around the same time, indicates that the family may have been struck down by some kind of disease. This also explains why they were given hastier and more basic burials than would otherwise be expected. It has been proposed that the culprit may have been malaria; if this is the case, it would represent the earliest known example of the disease, further adding to the significance of the discovery.
The 3D model of the tomb allows you to get up close to the well-preserved and brightly coloured carvings that adorn its walls. The rectangular gallery is covered in hieroglyphic inscriptions filled with references to Wahtye, the ‘Purified Priest to the King’, ‘Overseer of the Divine Estate’, and ‘Overseer of the Sacred Boat’, as well as images of everyday scenes intended to simulate his afterlife, including the production of food, pottery, and funerary goods, and activities like hunting, sailing, and religious ceremonies. The tomb contains more than 50 statues of Wahtye and his family in various sizes. While the reliefs on the tomb’s walls are impressive for their level of preservation and detail, they also seem to furnish clues that the true owner of the tomb was not the obvious candidate.
Detailed study of the statues and engravings has led to suggestions that the structure may not originally have been built for Wahtye at all. His name is found in so many inscriptions that it appears almost as though he is trying to assert that it does really belong to him, and there are other places where carvings are inconsistent and names look like they have been scratched off and replaced. Researchers have pointed out that the main statue, located on the false door and representing the tomb’s owner, does not look like all the others; they believe that it was made by another sculptor, and represents an entirely different person. These details indicate that Wahtye may have taken the tomb from someone else, perhaps his brother, whose remains were not among the burials. This sibling is referred to in an inscription dedicated ‘to the spirit of my brother’ on the eastern wall, but he is nowhere mentioned by name – a sign of Wahtye’s guilty conscience, perhaps?
The creation of 3D scans of sites like Wahtye’s tomb is an inventive response to the challenges posed to the tourism and heritage industry by COVID-19 restrictions, and offers a unique opportunity for people all over the world to experience these places at a time when it would not otherwise be possible. With interactive models, you can virtually explore tombs, churches, palaces, and museums at your leisure, investigating every corner in exceptional detail, but perhaps their most significant strength is their ability to inspire a longing to visit these remarkable places and soak up the atmosphere in person, when the possibility does present itself.
Find 3D models of Wahtye’s tomb and other Egyptian heritage sites at https:// egymonuments.gov.eg/en/media-hub
This article appeared in issue 106 of Current World Archaeology. Click here for more information about subscribing to the magazine