Early Dynastic Period tomb architecture at Saqqara

From the first pharaohs onwards, the dynastic elite had two large cemeteries: the royal tombs at Abydos in the south, and another cemetery at Saqqara, near the capital at Memphis. At Saqqara North, a series of great tombs provided texts mentioning almost all the kings of the First and Second Dynasties. These large rectangular mastabas in sun-dried mud brick belonged to the highest officials of the newly founded state. They comprise two distinct elements: a series of subterranean chambers, housing the burial in a central pit, and a platform or superstructure above ground. The subterranean chambers were rock-cut and lined with brick, plaster, timber, and reeds. The superstructure was up to 50 m in length and 3 m high. It was decorated with a panelled fa├žade on the outside influenced by early palace architecture. Its hollow interior was divided into a series of 'magazines' for grave goods.

Saqqara became a royal necropolis around 2750 BC, when royal tombs were constructed about 1 km to the south of the elite necropolis in the north. King Hetepsekhemwy, the first ruler of the Second Dynasty, relocated the royal cemetery from Abydos to Saqqara. Whereas the substructures at Abydos had been constructed with mudbrick in the sand, the Saqqara tombs are extensive underground galleries hewn out in the bedrock. The practice of subsidiary burials immediately adjacent to the royal tomb, still common at Abydos, was now abandoned.

So far, only the tombs of the first and third kings, Hetepsekhemwy and Ninetjer respectively, have been identified. The tomb of Ninetjer is currently being reinvestigated by the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo. It consists of an immense set of galleries and magazines and represents Ninetjer's palace and subsidiary buildings for the afterlife. The burial of the second king of the Second Dynasty, Raneb, in the area is rendered likely by seal impressions and a stela mentioning his name. The obscure kings Nebunefer and Sened are also sporadically attested at Saqqara. Following a hiatus in the archaeological record, the last two rulers of the Second Dynasty, Peribsen and Khasekhemwy chose to abandon Saqqara and construct their tombs once again at Abydos. To the latter king may belong an enigmatic structure situated to the west of the Djoser pyramid: the Gisr el-mudir. It is almost twice the size of the Step Pyramid enclosure, with massive limestone walls. No trace of a structure has been found inside the walls, which rules out the possibility of a royal tomb. When Khasekhemwy died, his successor Djoser abandoned the Abydene cemetery once and for all.

Late Second Dynasty presence at Saqqara has recently been identified in the Dutch concession area. Already in 1991 and again in 2002, remains of Early Dynastic structures were noticed below the tombs of Maya and Meryneith respectively. These are now being reinvestigated. The ground plans seem to resemble the earlier royal tombs further to the north. The latest discovery of a seal impression of Khasekhemwy gives a more specific date, but also confirms that we are dealing with the tomb of a high official or perhaps even a member of the royal family. This recent addition to the Second Dynasty puzzle at Saqqara completely changes our perception of the use of the site as a necropolis during the Early Dynastic period.