Early exploration

The first reports on the antiquities of Saqqara date to the second half of the 16th century. European visitors to Egypt were few, and most travellers merely saw Alexandria, Cairo, and Giza. However, the most intrepid tourists covered the 15 km of bleak desert between Giza and Saqqara and reported on plains strewn with mummy bones. The closed pyramids were inaccessible, but some shafts were already excavated by the local population and provided access to the ibis galleries. This situation lasted for about two centuries.

All this changed with Napoleon's expedition to Egypt (1798-1801). The French army was accompanied by scientists who mapped and described all the ancient monuments extant. After the defeat of the army by the British, European diplomats, merchants and adventurers took their place and started the exploitation of the antiquities. With official permission of the Egyptian Viceroy, they were allowed to start excavations and to export their finds, to be sold on the European art market. Foremost among this company were the British consul-general Henry Salt, his French colleague Bernardino Drovetti, and the Greek merchant (later consul-general for Sweden and Norway) Giovanni d'Anastasi. Between about 1815 and 1845, numerous monuments from the Saqqara necropolis (especially the rather vulnerable New Kingdom tombs) were disassembled and got dispersed over many European and American collections.

Exploration of a more scientific character started with the Prussian expedition of Richard Lepsius, who made an accurate map of Saqqara in 1843, and especially with Auguste Mariette, the founding father of the Egyptian Museum and Antiquities Service. Mariette discovered the Serapeum and excavated many Old Kingdom mastabas in its vicinity (1850-1854), at the same time trying to stop the depredation of the monuments. The Pyramid Texts were discovered by his successor Gaston Maspero in 1881. Large-scale fieldwork, especially at the Monastery of Apa Jeremias, the Step Pyramid and the early dynastic mastabas, started under the local Inspectors of Antiquities James Quibell (1905-1935), Cecil Firth (1913-1931), and Bryan Emery (1935-1939), and with the study of the other pyramids by the Swiss archaeologist Gustave Jéquier (1925-1936).