Digging diary, week 1: 1 - 7 May 2015


The First Week

By Paolo and Lara

This year's season is the first campaign with our new partners from the Turin museum. In the first quarter of the year 2014 Christian Greco, former curator of the RMO, was appointed director of the famous Museo Egizio in Turin, where he managed to acquire the funds to join the Leiden mission. Christian's first mammoth task in Turin was the reinstallation of the permanent exhibition which opened recently on 1 April 2015, which was also the reason we moved our current season to May. The weather now is extremely pleasant, not too hot, but warm and sunny with a soft breeze. When Maarten Raven, Sarah Inskip the new anthropologist, the surveyor Annelies Bleeker and Lara Weiss (Christian's successor in Leiden) arrived in the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) on May 1, our Italian colleagues including the curator of the Turin Museum and experienced archaeologist Paolo Del Vesco were already there and welcomed us. The next day we spent stocking our supplies and arranging mobile phone and internet, which in Egypt can take a while. Our surveyor Annelies had to return to the shop three times to get the phone working properly. In the evening we were joined by our pottery specialist Barbara Aston, who flew in all the way from Ohio. On Sunday we went to the Ministry of Antiquities to receive the paperwork accompanying the formal permission of the Egyptian authorities to open the site and to start digging. This visit was extremely efficient, the head of foreign missions Hany Abu el Azm was very helpful, and after no more than about half an hour we were ready to head to Saqqara to install ourselves in our dighouse there. In the meantime the last missing member of this year's campaign Lyla Pinch-Brock had joined us and Moshir the nice driver of the NVIC took us to Saqqara. Like in the MOS, Maarten and I were warmly welcomed by the director of Saqqara Ala'a el-Shahat and the director of Saqqara South Mohammad Mohammad Yousouf, who were kind and helpful. So the next day we could finally open the site.

Work started on 5th May with two tasks. Our restoration architect Nicholas Warner was already present when we arrived and instructed his workmen to rebuild and reinforce the mud brick walls of the tomb of Sethnakht which was found in 2010. This is necessary to both protect the original structure underneath and to strengthen the walls of a tomb which shall be backfilled in the next couple of days. The backfilling is beneficial as it not only protects the tomb but it provides an area for the sand we will remove from the shaft of the yet anonymous tomb X (found in 2013). The new mud brick wall will remain visible and will allow visitors to read the floor plan of the backfilled tomb of Sethnakht.

The second task which we started on the first day was the clearing of the shaft of tomb X. Two underground chambers and a staircase of tomb X were discovered almost empty of sand in 2002, because tomb robbers had at some point connected them with the Early Dynastic galleries underneath the tomb of Meryneith which were being worked on at the time. A higher lying chamber and the shaft were reserved for later excavation, and now that we have proof that the shaft is none other than that opening in the courtyard of tomb X it is time to tackle this task. It was exciting to open the New Kingdom shaft which has been closed since Coptic times, a date confirmed by the pottery found inside. Among the most exciting finds was a hammer and ambos from an ancient ear which our new anthropologist Sarah found on the surface, and the fragment of a nice faience vase in the shaft.

During the last two days of this first short week the shaft of tomb X has already been generous of exciting finds: first a dozen mud bricks with stamped royal cartouches and then five nice fragments of limestone reliefs with inscriptions and images of the deceased, whose name remains a mystery for the moment. At the end of the work on Thursday the shaft was 7.2 meters deep and just revealed the entrance to the expected north tomb-chamber. Lara used the opportunity to climb down for a brief inspection, her first experience with a swinging rope ladder.

At the same time we started working in a different area just east of tomb X which was in front of a porticoed chapel probably built in the Ramesside period. The aim here is to look for the funerary shaft pertaining to the chapel. After removing a layer of sand luckily enough a compact surface appeared in front of the chapel and immediately after a rectangular cut which might well indicate the presence of a shaft opening. With all these emotions and a still reasonable climate the first week is finished. After the Friday off in Cairo new discoveries await us next week.