Digging diary, week 6: 15 - 21 April 2017

After last week two-days-forced-“distraction” for the extension of our visas, this week we could concentrate completely on the excavation. The area we have been exploring so far shows a significant accumulation of occupation layers dating to the Late Roman and Byzantine periods, as can be expected from a part of the Saqqara necropolis so close to the important Coptic monastery of St. Jeremiah. All these interesting stratified layers, with mud floors, reed-mats, pits, plaster-coated installations and structures made of re-used limestone blocks and dark mud-bricks rest on the abandonment and collapse deposits of the Ramesside and Late Period necropolis. A series of big pits – dug during later periods, through the “Coptic” layers, in search of building materials or supposedly precious treasures – conveniently offer us today the opportunity of getting glimpses of the underlying structures and layers: we just have to empty these pits from their loose fillings.

A new funerary shaft found at the bottom of a large robbery pit

The second Ramesside chapel emerging from the sand,
with Daniel and Lara recording a displaced stone relief


In the footsteps of both the ancient and the 19th-century plunderers we could for instance reach this week a well preserved funerary shaft, most probably pertaining to a Ramesside structure yet to be discovered, and the remains of a second limestone-slab chapel, much bigger than the first one. The remains of the chapel walls unfortunately preserved only the bottom of the lower register of the decoration, but other reliefs found in the area are most likely also deriving from the same structure. The blocks have been carefully recorded and studied by Lara and Daniel, the last team member who joined us on Wednesday. At least two female names could be read in the inscriptions: Ranury and Ray.

Lara, Daniel and Ismail doing epigraphy and cleaning the reliefs

Daniel and Lara recording the decoration of a stone slab


This week we also continued the removal of a part of the intact stratification of Coptic occupation layers that last week revealed a series of underlying embalming caches that were accurately excavated and recorded by Nico. The lower stratum, a thick layer of yellow wind-blown sand that seems to cover the Ramesside funerary structures, was hiding a nice, but badly damaged, wooden coffin. More than a proper burial, it seems to be a coffin pulled out of one of the surrounding shafts by the robbers and left there to the merciless action of weather and time. The upper part of the coffin lid was missing, as well as the head and upper body of the deceased, apart from the two shoulder blades and a few vertebrae. From pelvis to feet the skeleton, protected by the lower part of the coffin lid, was however still intact and wrapped in bandages. Clearly the robbers were after his or her amulets when they opened the coffin.

The feet of the wooden coffin appearing in the sand

The badly damaged bottom of the wooden coffin to the north of the small Ramesside chapel


During the last few days we also started the exploration of the funerary shaft relating to the first small chapel. Further to the west, along the northern wall of Maya’s tomb – thanks to a burial pit excavated by Ali Jelene – we could record two very promising mud-brick walls, which seem to pertain to an earlier New Kingdom tomb.

Finally, we completed the backfilling of the shaft of Samut and of Tomb X in the South sector. And with the helpful collaboration of the Egyptian restoration department of Saqqara we could consolidate the badly weathered slabs of the newly found small Ramesside chapel in the North sector.

Paolo and Fahmy excavating the funerary
shaft of the small Ramesside chapel
Promising mud-brick walls between the northern
wall of Maya’s tomb and the 1980’s retaining wall


People often wonder how a typical day is organized in Saqqara. In fact, our schedule changed drastically as opposed to previous seasons, due to new Egyptian security regulations. We are no longer allowed to bring bones and pottery down to the dig house to study them there. Whereas this new regulation appeared to be a drawback at first, after a few days everybody got used to the new system and we are actually quite happy with it. Instead of having to rush at 13:30h, when the workmen are leaving and the site used to be closed, all team members and the inspector are now allowed to stay at the site until 16:00h. The afternoons can thus be fruitfully used to finalize the object, pottery and bones documentation as well as the site documentation.

Southern sector: Tomb X consolidated and backfilled

Recomposed vessels from a New Kingdom embalming cache


Even our pottery specialist Barbara, although she is sad she gets less pottery drawing done, agrees a plus point of the new system is that she can now use the evenings to work on her publications. Also for photography, drawing reliefs and all kinds of other documentation it is very efficient that we do no longer need to rush at the end of the day, but can take our time, for example, to clean surfaces before they are photographed and have a closer look at certain interesting objects and reliefs. We do not need to go down to the dig house for a big lunch, but our cook Atef now brings us a cool box filled with sandwiches, cookies, fresh juice and fruit. Obviously we cannot survive on sandwiches alone, so we moved the dinner from 19:30h to 18:30h, which allows for more time to digest, and again allows us to use the evenings productively to finalize the documentation of the day.

Paolo Del Vesco
Lara Weiss