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Saqqara Day 2019 / Saqqara-dag 2019

Join us for the 17th Saqqara-day on Saturday 15 June in Leiden!

One lecture in English (by an international speaker), ca. four lectures in Dutch: a report on the last excavation season by one of the excavators, and several other topics related to the Leiden-Turin expedition and the Saqqara necropolis.

Second-hand book market, lottery, and plenty of opportunity to catch up with the people working at Saqqara and fellow Friends!

Date: Saturday 15 June 2019, ca. 9.30-18.00 hrs
Location: Lipsius building (Leiden University), Cleveringaplaats 1, Leiden, the Netherlands
Entrance free for Friends of Saqqara members, € 10 for non-members.

Full program will soon be posted on our website. You can fill in the registration form here.


Kom ook naar de 17e Saqqara-dag op zaterdag 15 juni!

Op het programma: één lezing in het Engels (door een internationale spreker) en ca. vier lezingen in het Nederlands: een verslag van het laatste opgravingsseizoen in Saqqara door één van de opgravers, en verschillende andere onderwerpen gerelateerd aan de Leids-Turijnse opgraving en de begraafplaats Saqqara.

Tweedehands boekenmarkt, loterij, en veel gelegenheid om elkaar te ontmoeten!

Datum: zaterdag 15 juni 2019, ca. 9.30-18.00u
Plaats: Lipsius-gebouw (Universiteit Leiden), Cleveringaplaats 1
Entree: donateurs gratis, studenten € 5, niet-donateurs € 10

Binnenkort vindt u de details van het programma op onze website, en kunt u zich hier aanmelden.

2019-05-22T13:19:02+01:00May 21st, 2019|Categories: News|

Preliminary Report on the 2018 Season

The 2018 report from the Leiden-Turin Expedition to Saqqara is now available in Open Access here:

Preliminary Report 2018

In the 2018 season, the expedition worked north of the tomb of Maya. A Ramesside tomb-chapel was found with six small figures carved in high relief in the middle of its back wall (see photo). The shaft of another Ramesside chapel was excavated, revealing several plundered subterranean chambers. Read the Preliminary Report for more information!

Ramesside tomb-chapel with carved figures in high relief

Ramesside tomb-chapel with carved figures in high relief, found during the 2018 season.

2019-05-10T11:30:59+01:00May 10th, 2019|Categories: News|

Digging Diary 6, 20-24 April 2019: See you next year, insha’allah, Saqqara!

Time flies when you’re having fun! We find ourselves at the end of the season and have closed the site and securely placed all finds in the storerooms. These include many fragments of “slipper coffins” and linen textile. Some interesting finds were made this week in the new tomb north of Maya, which is now better understood, and which we will continue to excavate next year. We are thankful to all team members and workmen for a very successful season, and to you for reading our Digging Diaries!

A box full of slipper coffin fragments excavated this season. Photo: Daniel Soliman.

A box full of slipper coffin fragments excavated this season. Photo: Daniel Soliman.

Time flies when you’re having fun, and here we find ourselves at the end of the excavation season! Our last day of work was on Tuesday, while we spent Wednesday closing the site and ensuring that all objects are securely placed in the storerooms. All in all it was a shorter, but still rather hectic week. As usual, at the end of the season we wrap up everything, clean all of the excavation area for the final general photos and survey, process the last pottery and bone fragments, and document the last finds. In addition, and very importantly, we had to remove the huge dump of excavated sand we produced during these six weeks of work, to clear the area for future excavations. We also backfilled all the structures we unearthed in order to preserve everything in the best possible way for seasons to come.

The workmen are backfilling the newly excavated tomb to the north of Maya to preserve it for next season. Photo: Daniel Soliman.

The workmen are backfilling the newly excavated tomb to the north of Maya to preserve it for next season. Photo: Daniel Soliman.

Before doing that, however, we had three more days to continue with the excavation, and we didn’t want to waste a single minute. Therefore, Paolo decided to split our team of workmen in two groups. This allowed us to work simultaneously on the still rather high mound of debris overlooking the structures discovered in the past two years, as well as inside the large tomb found last year and further explored in the present season. We now know the total extension of the tomb and can tell that unfortunately it was heavily plundered, most likely in the 19thcentury. We found the remains of three columns of the central courtyard, and we could determine that the floor of the main entrance is neatly paved with nice limestone slabs. We managed to better understand the relationship of this tomb with the surrounding area, but the excavation of its main funerary shaft and the exploration of its underground chambers must wait till next year. See you in a year, then, very interesting tomb!

A basket full of skeletal remains discovered during the excavations. Photo: Daniel Soliman.

A basket full of skeletal remains discovered during the excavations. Photo: Daniel Soliman.

We now know the total extension of the tomb and can tell that unfortunately it was heavily plundered, most likely in the 19thcentury. We found the remains of three columns of the central courtyard, and we could determine that the floor of the main entrance is neatly paved with nice limestone slabs. The excavation of its main funerary shaft and the exploration of its underground chambers must wait till next year.

You might not expect it from the excavation of a dump, but the work brought to light various objects that demanded all of our attention. We found copious amounts of fragments from wood coffins, some with their original paint preserved. But the sands also revealed other material that was used for burials. There were many fragments of linen textile that may have accompanied buried individuals from the Late Antique period. Egyptian linen is famous for its extraordinary quality, and we experienced this first hand as many fragments from shawls, hats and tunics were large and well preserved. This experience serves us very well, because the curators of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden are preparing an exhibition on Egyptian textiles that will be opened in 2020.

Reorganised skeletal remains now stored in the subterranean rooms in the tomb of Horemheb. Photo: Daniel Soliman.

Reorganised skeletal remains now stored in the subterranean rooms in the tomb of Horemheb. Photo: Daniel Soliman.

One category of objects that has occupied us this season fragments of a type of coffin that Egyptologists funnily enough call “slipper coffins”. These are anthropoid ceramic coffins, usually of Nile silt, that completely enveloped the mummified body. The fragments that we discovered date to the Late Period and are often rather crudely modelled. On occasion, however, we documented fragments with nice decoration and traces of paint.

Meanwhile, on the site, we are regaled by the stories of our Egyptian team members. The older ones among them have been working at Saqqara excavations for many years, and they remember the many discoveries made. During an idle moment while reorganising our storerooms in the subterranean chambers of the tomb of Meryneith, Assam Azmi told us about the famous moment when he discovered the statue of Meryneith together with Maarten Raven and René van Walsem. The statue has since found a new home in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Daniel and Nicola leave the site. Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

Daniel and Nicola leave the site. Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

The team has now packed up and said their goodbyes to our wonderful staff who took good care of us at the dig house. After a long day’s work in the sun, we used to come home to Atef, Mahmoud and Fahim who welcomed us with a cold glass of home-made lemonade. Together with them we have celebrated the birthdays of some of the team members, and we were happy to return the favour by cooking gnocchi for Atef’s birthday. The team members, tired but content with the work, are now on their way home, where the results of this season will be processed further. We look forward to telling you more soon, first at this year’s Saqqara Day on 15 June 2019!

Paolo Del Vesco, Daniel Soliman, and Lara Weiss

The Saqqara Team says thank you! Photo: Nicola Dell’Aquila.

The Saqqara Team says thank you! Photo: Nicola Dell’Aquila.

2019-04-26T13:31:52+01:00April 26th, 2019|Categories: Digging Diaries 2019|

Digging Diary 5, 12-19 April 2019: How to protect the dead at Saqqara

This week was travel-intensive for the directors. There were many afternoon meetings in Cairo for our Transformation of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo project – in preparation of the upcoming big steering committee meeting by the end of the month. In addition, we visited the opening of the nice Tuna el-Gebel exhibition made by our German colleagues, and we celebrated Europe Day in the European embassy (a little earlier because of Ramadan). At the site we continued excavating the new tomb.

Hi everyone, Ali Jelene checking in for week 5. As with the previous two seasons, I’m responsible for the human remains at our site. From excavation to storage and everything in between! As we haven’t found any new burials yet, I’ve had some time to focus on other aspects of dealing with human remains from an archaeological context. You see, archaeology doesn’t stop once a burial (or an item, a find, an object…) is excavated. The act of excavating disturbs the materials that have been in a certain place for ages, and this shift in environment is often enough to disrupt the careful equilibrium that preserved the material in the state we excavate it in. In order to avoid further decay, we have to undertake adequate steps in the handling and storage of the materials we find. This sounds complicated, but if you know the materials you’re working with and what they require in terms of storage, it should be pretty straightforward.

In regards to human remains specifically, there is of course the ethical aspect. We are dealing with the remains of actual human beings, and while we don’t know any of their direct descendants currently alive today, we should still treat these remains with respect from the moment we excavated them all the way until we place them in the storage room.

This brings us to the topic of this week’s Digging Diary: storage. Once human remains have been analysed, they should be stored in a way that meets several goals. We want to treat them the way we ourselves would want to be treated, we don’t want them to decay further, all the while making sure that we keep them available for future research. Who knows what interesting new techniques might be discovered in the future, allowing us a better insight in the lives of ancient Egyptians. It is with this in mind that I’ve been spending the season optimising the storage situation on site. Let me give you a look into the process of how we’re currently doing it.

Once the analysis of a burial is finished, we first label every single bone by applying a thin layer of clear nail polish before writing the unique burial number on it. This is time-intensive labor, but should be done in case a bone is taken from the rest of the burial (for example for further analysis or the application of other techniques that we cannot do on site, like x-rays). With every bone labeled, it is easy to see at a glance which individual it belongs to.

Carefully labelling each bone. Photo: Nicola Dell’Aquila.

Carefully labelling each bone. Photo: Nicola Dell’Aquila.

Labeled vertebrae. Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

Labeled vertebrae. Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

Once labeled, we store the bones in clear plastic bags that have been perforated. In order to do so, we’ve constructed a scary-looking device that allows us to puncture through several bags at once. The reason we punch these holes is because bones are an organic material that needs to be able to breathe. Storing them in airtight conditions will lead to mold, rapid decay, accumulation of moisture, and other things we really don’t want to happen.

Construction of the hole-punching device. Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

Construction of the hole-punching device. Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

The finished hole-punching device. Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

The finished hole-punching device. It currently goes by the name “torture device” but no worries, no one has been tortured with it… yet 😉 Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

Each perforated bag is then labeled with the unique burial number, the date and the contents, and is put together with the other bags belonging to the individual in a crate. This crate, too, is labeled, and the location it is stored is noted down in the storage magazine inventory, so we can find it easily when we need it again.

The new shelves in the Horemheb storage room. Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

There is light at the end of the tunnel… The new shelves in the Horemheb storage room. Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

As you can probably tell by now, it requires a lot of administrative work to get the storage sorted out. With the eye on possible future research, we’re also inventorying the bone assemblages from the previous seasons so that we have a clear image of what is stored where. We’ve been building shelves in the storage rooms and the crates that aren’t in tiptop shape have been replaced. It’s time-consuming and not really glamorous work, but it’s also part of an archaeological excavation.

Ali Jelene Scheers

Re-crating the broken crates down in the subterranean complex of Meryneith. Corinna, Christian and Luca helped. Photo: Paolo Del Vesco.

Re-crating the broken crates down in the subterranean complex of Meryneith. Corinna, Christian and Luca helped me with this mammoth task – without them I would be re-crating until next season. Photo: Paolo Del Vesco.

Inventorying the labels. Photo: Nicola Dell’Aquila.

Inventorying the labels. Photo: Nicola Dell’Aquila.

45 years of excavation yield a lot of material. Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

45 years of excavation yield a lot of material. Photo: Ali Jelene Scheers.

2019-04-18T23:05:19+01:00April 19th, 2019|Categories: Digging Diaries 2019|

Digging Diary 4, 6-11 April 2019: Hunting hieroglyphs in their natural habitat

Week four was quite exciting! We finally started investigating the underground chambers of Meryneith’s tomb, and Luca began to create the 3D model. In the meantime, Nico continued to excavate north of Maya’s tomb and found some very exceptional objects. Stefanie finalised her restauration work in the central magazine with Islam. Beside small finds registration, Daniel and Lara finished the reorganisation of the new storage rooms. Last but not least, team member Huw Twiston Davies arrived and gets the word in the current Digging Diary to introduce himself and his work.

It’s one thing to read about the tombs excavated by various missions in the books they have published. But to really get a sense of the layout of texts in the individual tombs, and the relation of the tombs to each other, you really need to see the site in person. This was my main reason for visiting the site. As part of the research project “The Walking Dead at Saqqara: The Making of a Cultural Geography”, I work alongside dig director Lara Weiss, and team member Nico Staring at the University of Leiden. Our project attempts to understand the ways in which individuals and groups adapted to and shaped their environment at Saqqara over time in relation to their religious beliefs. The aim of the project is to build up a fuller picture of the development of religious beliefs at the site of Saqqara over the course of the New Kingdom by examining the religious practices at the site, the adaptation and editing of religious texts in the different tombs at the site, and the development of the necropolis landscape.

This is quite different from more traditional accounts of Egyptian religion, which often emphasise the strength of tradition, and the continuity of practice across time. While it is true that many religious texts, and the religious practices of priests in the temple may have remained largely unchanged, this does not mean that nothing at all changed in religious practice across thousands of years. Texts could be re-edited, adapted, or reinterpreted, or reused for new purposes. Particular religious rites, and particular areas of a temple, tomb, or necropolis, for doing them could rise and fall in popularity. The apparently “static” Egyptian religion in reality was likely continuously changing.

My main purpose here is to put what I’ve read into context, and see what the necropolis is like in person. The publications of the individual tombs are excellent, but inevitably cannot give much sense of what the tombs are really like; the sense of the size of each tomb, and in particular the layout of the tombs in relation to one another. Published maps give some sense of how the tombs are packed together, but on the site itself, it is easier to see that they are, in some cases, literally on top of one another.

Down in the shaft of Meryneith’s tomb. Photo: Lara Weiss.

Down in the shaft of Meryneith’s tomb. Photo: Lara Weiss.

It is difficult to get a sense of scale from the books published about the tombs. Some scenes, which are shown in highly detailed drawings in the published volumes, are in reality much smaller. Other scenes are larger, and always, the layout and the connections between the different scenes only becomes really clear when standing in the tomb itself. A large part of my time at the site is taken up with exploring the surviving tombs, and either checking texts against the version published, or noting the physical interrelations between the scenes more clearly. This is achieved by photographing the scenes from a distance, so that their place in the tomb, and sometimes in the necropolis more broadly, can be seen. This helps to build up a sense of how the living might have interacted with the reliefs, and how the Book of the Deadin particular is ‘spread’ across the site as a whole.

Sometimes this involves checking for decoration in the subterranean chambers of the tomb. On Sunday, I joined an expedition into the burial chambers beneath the tomb of Meryneith, which have to be accessed using a rope-ladder, through a deep vertical shaft, which is normally sealed with heavy casing-stones. Unfortunately, this did not produce any new decoration for me, though the human remains stored here from previous dig seasons has provided plenty of work for the mission’s osteologist.

Rope ladder down into the shaft of Meryneith’s tomb. Photo: Lara Weiss.

Rope ladder down into the shaft of Meryneith’s tomb. Photo: Lara Weiss.

The most unexpected part of working in the necropolis is the birdsong. A surprising number of birds venture over the escarpment and into the necropolis, presumably to feed on the insects which inhabit the area. In reality, the necropolis is not so far from the cultivation, so it’s not so far for them to fly. We often think of deserts and graveyards as quiet places, but the birdsong is a reminder that ‘quiet’ is a relative term, and in antiquity, it may have been quite different. The sound of funerals in progress, of festival banquets, or the construction of new tombs, all would have made the necropolis quite noisy.

My other chief occupation on-site is to help to read the hieroglyphic and hieratic texts that are excavated, though until the last few days these have been thin on the ground. An offering-table, probably dating to the Late Period and found before I arrived is very difficult to read. In theory, hieroglyphs are quite easy to identify and therefore to read, but after millennia of weather erosion, the forms are often very abraded, and difficult to see on the stone. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell what is dirt, and what is the line of a hieroglyph, or whether a given nick in the stone is part of a sign, or a piece of damage. Sometimes, the eye plays tricks, too, and ‘completes’ a piece of damage, so that you see a hieroglyph where there isn’t one in reality. Reading in these cases often involves the use of a torch, and moving the light repeatedly to try and detect where there are really incisions in the stone. If the text is particularly badly worn, as it is in this case, reconstructing the text can take several attempts, and having several people work on the problem can help to speed up the process of reading.

Daniel and Huw deciphering the inscription on an offering table. Photo: Lara Weiss.

Daniel and Huw deciphering the inscription on an offering table. Photo: Lara Weiss.

Other inscribed material presents different problems. A fragment of papyrus which was excavated on Monday aroused excitement with the red border visible even when the piece was folded up. This is a fairly common feature in the more elaborate copies of the Book of the Dead, and so might have indicated one of these papyri. In fact, the papyrus is more interesting, but also more puzzling, than this suggested. The remains of the text is very fragmentary. Only two hieroglyphs can be read: one is the number 5, and the other reads ‘i’. The ‘i’ appears at the bottom of the fragment, in what may once have been a single line of text at the bottom of the page, or register. Above it, after a long gap in which everything except the border is missing, appears to be at least one box, with an illustration in it, next to which the number 5 is written. Only a few lines of the illustration remain, so what it depicts is difficult to say.

The format of the papyrus, with a series of boxes containing illustrations, and a line of text boxed in at the bottom, is similar to certain types of papyrus known from the Late Period (c. 664-332 BCE). I thought particularly of the ‘Tanis Geographical Papyrus’ in the British Museum, and our working theory is that the papyrus is some kind of compendium, or “knowledge document” similar to this.

Daniel and Huw in their field office. Photo: Lara Weiss.

Daniel and Huw in their field office. Photo: Lara Weiss.

But every day on-site is different, and brings new finds and new challenges. Almost anything might emerge from the excavation next. In the meantime, I have many more beautiful reliefs and hieroglyphic texts to examine.

Huw Twiston Davies

2019-04-17T20:47:59+01:00April 12th, 2019|Categories: Digging Diaries 2019|

Digging Diary 3, 30 March-5 April 2019: Recording in 3D

The third week of our excavations were relatively eventless, as we are still digging through the debris of the 1980s to reach the level of the new tomb discovered in 2018. Without removing the sands first, it would not be safe to work there – the sands would fall down on our staff. While Nico and Paolo are further excavating the area together with the Egyptian workmen, the others gained extra time to reorganize the existing storage spaces. The Polimi team (the 3D Survey Group) continued to survey the greater concession area. The fantastic results are described in this week’s digging diary.

The 3DSurveyGroup of the ABC Department, Politecnico di Milano joined for the second year the Leiden-Turin excavation. The research group, headed by Professor Francesco Fassi and Professor Cristiana Achille, is active in the field of 3D survey, modelling and valorisation of Cultural Heritage. The main activities are: architectural and archaeological survey, monitoring, high resolution and detailed 3D models management, teaching and training.

This season, the team consists of Alessandro Mandelli and Luca Perfetti, with the external collaboration of Professor Corinna Rossi. They are in charge of recording in 3D the entire excavation process, ranging from the whole area of the concession, to the contexts and the small finds that come up during the digging activities.

Within the dualism technology-human sciences, the role of the 3DSurveyGroup is to put metrology at service of the experts in the team, of the public, as well as of future memory. The group’s mission is to join forces with all the team members to maximize data recording before the progress of the excavation destroys the archaeological contexts. The aim is twofold: to increase the subsequent study potential when the mission ends, and to record and disseminate information on the actual context of the finds, that is usually lost.

Alessandro and Luca surveying the excavation area. Photo: Nicola Dell’Aquila.

Alessandro and Luca surveying the excavation area. Photo: Nicola Dell’Aquila.

The 3D models of the excavated area are useful tools to help the work of the archaeologists during and after the excavations. In fact, thanks to these products, they can track the history and the progress of the work and they are able to “travel” back in time, revisiting forever lost contexts from the very first to the last day of the season.

Using such a tool, the archaeologists, back in their offices in Leiden and Turin, can surf the raw, unbiased data from the excavation days, searching for missing information they lost track of, or seeking the answer to unforeseen questions.

When the digging team find something interesting, such as reliefs, pottery and burials the survey team immediately records the situation by acquiring photos and measuring the coordinates of the findings. Later, they improve the first survey, according to the requests, and deliver to each expert what they need.

The Politecnico team provided high-resolution orthophotos that were used to outline some inscriptions engraved in the stone. If the orthophoto is not clear enough, using a normal laptop archaeologists are able to simulate lights moving around the object and illuminate it in various ways, to better understand the signs and drawings. This represents a successful example of collaboration between technical and humanistic sides, in which the former identifies the most efficient tool to answer the questions posed by the latter.

3D model of Find No. 92 with artificial light. Elaboration: Luca Perfetti and Alessandro Mandelli.

3D model of Find No. 92 with artificial light. Elaboration: Luca Perfetti and Alessandro Mandelli.

All the digital models are collected together in a sort of three-dimensional database, each one in their relative position. This is possible thanks to the topographic network around the excavation area that was checked by the survey team during the very first days of the mission.

During the second week, due to the expansion of the excavation area, they placed and precisely measured a new topographic point in front of Maya’s tomb, and the workers removed the old one.

New topographic point SAK19P1. Photo: Alessandro Mandelli.

New topographic point SAK19P1. Photo: Alessandro Mandelli.

Old topographic point M005

Old topographic point M005. Photo: Alessandro Mandelli.

This year, the team is going to face many challenges: 1) generate the DSM (Digital Surface Model) of the whole concession; 2) complete the 3D models of the main tombs; 3) survey Meryneith’s underground chambers.

After a long walk in the concession using fish-eye lenses to create more than 1.500 photos, the digital model of the concession is nearly concluded. This kind of representation, with the contour lines, helps to understand the topology of the area and the landscape around the main tombs.

Digital Surface Model of the Leiden-Turin concession at Saqqara. Elaboration: Luca Perfetti.

Digital Surface Model of the Leiden-Turin concession at Saqqara. Elaboration: Luca Perfetti.

Last year, the team performed a complete survey of the tombs of Maya and Tia and then delivered accurate digital models of the tombs and their reliefs, kindly sponsored by the Friends of Saqqara Foundation. This year the aim is to collect all the data to reproduce also the tombs of Horemheb, Pay, Ptahemwia and Meryneith. Right in these days, the surveys are quite finished and the elaboration is going on.

3D model of Maya’s tomb, kindly sponsored by the Friends of Saqqara Foundation in 2018. Elaboration: Alessandro Mandelli.

3D model of Maya’s tomb, kindly sponsored by the Friends of Saqqara Foundation in 2018. Elaboration: Alessandro Mandelli.

3D model of Maya’s tomb: detail of reliefs. Elaboration: Alessandro Mandelli.

3D model of Maya’s tomb: detail of reliefs. Elaboration: Alessandro Mandelli.

Regarding the survey of Meryneith’s shaft and its underground chambers, our PhD student Luca is eager to test a time-effective and low-cost photogrammetric device to survey narrow spaces together with elaboration methodology to guarantee accuracy. The aim is to tailor this technique to cope with the many challenges of surveying this kind of spaces like the tightness of the environment, the absence of any sort of natural illumination and the mazy, meandering architecture. Last year, the team faced a similar situation, when they surveyed a shaft in front of one of the Ramesside chapels in the north area.

Technical drawing of Shaft 131 (season 2018). Elaboration: Luca Perfetti.

Technical drawing of Shaft 131 (season 2018). Elaboration: Luca Perfetti.

In the next days, when the shaft will be opened, they are going to construct a test to compare different approaches and techniques and check for final accuracy.

If you want to know more… stay tuned with the Leiden-Turin Expedition to Saqqara!

Alessandro Mandelli and Luca Perfetti

2019-04-17T20:47:24+01:00April 5th, 2019|Categories: Digging Diaries 2019|