Digging diary, week 2: 18 - 23 March 2017


Hi everyone! I'm Ali Jelene Scheers, the new physical anthropologist at the Saqqara excavations. I was introduced to the team by Sarah Inskip, who joined in 2015 but couldn't join this season. Although I am an Egypt-newbie, I have quite a bit of experience in human anatomy, with research in Bolivia, Belgium, and the Netherlands. I am looking forward to discovering Egyptian archaeology and am happy to take you along on my description of the first week of the 2017 season in the field (and my first season in Saqqara in general!). It has flown by – it seems only yesterday that Alice, Valentina and I joined Barbara, Lara, Maarten, Pieter and Paolo. We arrived in the dig house on Saturday but were only able to pay the site a quick visit immediately after arrival, as the excavations end each day at 13h30. Thus, it was only on Sunday that we started our first full work day – but what a start we had!

Our new pottery specialist, Valentina, fit right in with Barbara and the thousands of pottery shards while Alice, the new artist, and I started on a burial that was found north of Tomb X. We estimated that it wouldn't take longer than a day to excavate. However, it is never so straightforward in archaeology: When you expect to be done fairly quickly, something amazing (and very time-consuming) suddenly pops up (although this is not always the case). To start with, the burial itself was quite unexpected: it was right next to the northern wall of tomb X, outside of the tomb structure. While this use of an existing wall to shelter a grave more often occurs with secondary burials, it was still a surprise to see the outline pop up on the very first day.

And so, Alice and I (from now on known as Team Double A) started working – reveal the coffin, excavate the skeleton, document everything, and on to the next one, right? Well...


 Team “Double A” on the job


First, we revealed a painted coffin lid which we are able to date, using the patterns on it. After documenting everything, we continued to remove the lid to reveal... another lid. In true matryoshka style, the burial consisted of a smaller coffin inside the bigger one. However, the weight of time had proved too much for the double coffin lid, as it had collapsed on top of our individual. Sadly, this damaged some of the contents.

At this stage, Maarten was still confident that this would all be finished in one day. However, upon removing the inner lid, we discovered that the individual was wrapped in a bead net, made out of blue oblong beads that formed rhomboid patterns through the use of a red circular bead at the junctions. Of course, this bead net was only preserved in situ at certain spots, so we spent the next two days picking out thousands of beads. Sand + beads is not a good combination, let me tell you. We couldn't sweep in peace as every brush stroke revealed four new beads. Hurray!


Ali Jelene carefully brushes away the sand


At long last we managed to move on to the next layers. The body was wrapped in a reed mat, which was covered by a layer of cloth (probably linen, but badly preserved) and a thin layer of mud, with the bead net on top. Luckily these layers were a little less time-consuming than the bead net (although we kept on finding beads everywhere), and we soon managed to uncover the individual.

He or she was quite well preserved; we even found some hair on the skull and some fingernails. As the body has only been uncovered today, it is too early to give more details about who exactly was buried so carefully, but a quick look at the bones revealed that the individual was in his/her mid-teens. As the body is still undergoing changes, it will probably be difficult to estimate sex - most of the characteristics used in this method are secondary and only develop during puberty. However, the analysis part is for another time. After this promising week, I can't wait to see what next week brings!

Ali Jelene