Digging diary, week 7: 22 - 27 April

Apart from the on-going excavations, the surveys, and the study of the ceramic and skeletal material, the directors of the mission allowed the New Kingdom Tomb Construction Project (carried out at Copenhagen University) to visit the site. On behalf of this research project I joined the team for the last week of the season, marking my return to the site since traineeship as a student in 2008 (!). Even though my stay in Saqqara was brief, it was very eventful, and I was happy to assist with registering finds and copying reliefs.

Relief in tomb of Tia


Additionally, I spent some time investigating matters related to the building and decoration of monumental tombs at Saqqara. Our interest in this necropolis is partly due to a dossier of papyri that record the organisation and the progress of the work on a tomb at an unknown location at Saqqara. These documents were written by a single scribe during the time of Ramesses III (20th Dynasty) and deposited in the mastaba of Ni-ankh-ba, situated just north of the causeway of the pyramid of Unas. The New Kingdom tombs which the Leiden-Turin mission has discovered to date are all of the 18th and the 19th dynasty. In fact, not a single surviving tomb at Saqqara seems to date to the 20th Dynasty, although there are clear indications that the necropolis was in use during this period as well.

Mastaba of Ni-ankh-ba


Some tombs could still be hiding underneath the sands within the concession of the Leiden-Turin mission, while other 20th Dynasty tombs seem to have been situated in the area to the north-east of the pyramid of Teti (mentioned by Nico Staring in the Digging Diary of week 5). I visited the location this week, and it is clear that tombs were constructed there during the Ramesside period. More investigation is needed to determine if the tomb described in the papyri may have stood at this part of the cemetery as well.

New Kingdoms tombs in the cemetery north of the pyramid of Teti


A close study of the tombs of Maya, Horemheb and Tia reveals some details of the construction process. Once the site had been cleared and evened out, limestone slabs were laid down for the pavement of the tomb. Lines were sometimes cut into the pavement for the alignment of the walls and door jambs, and to indicate the central axis of the tomb, e.g. in the tomb of Horemheb. A limestone block from the 19th Dynasty tomb of Tia illustrates some of the stages of building and decorating the tomb: roughly cut limestone blocks were positioned on the pavement, after which the surface was smoothing using a chisel. After the decoration was cut into the stone, the blocks were plastered, and the paint was applied. In a relief from the tomb of Horemheb, the draftsman’s outlines are still visible in red ink.

Relief in tomb of Horemheb with traces of the original outlines of the draftsman
Guidelines cut in the pavement of the tomb of Horemheb
indicating the position of the doorjambs and the central axis of the tomb


Still, several questions remain unanswered. We are not quite sure how exactly the site of the necropolis was accessed to transport the building material, but it seems likely that there were several roads leading from the quays of the Nile to the slope of the Saqqara plateau, into the cemetery. Next to nothing is known about the ancient workmen and where they resided during the construction process. Hopefully we will be able to research these and other inquiries in the future!

Tombs are no longer constructed at Saqqara in our day, but hard work continues


Daniel Soliman