Polish-Egyptian Archaeological Mission Saqqara
Type of site:
Old Kingdom – Greco-Roman period
Most interesting finds:
– tomb of Merefnebef
– tomb of Nyankhnefertem
– tomb of Ichi
– Dry Moat
– Upper Necropolis
History of research:
Dates of PCMA mission’s work:
Type of research:
Excavations, epigraphical, anthropological and conservation works
Karol Myśliwiec (1987; 1996–2016)
Kamil Kuraszkiewicz (since 2016)
– Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw
– Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities
Description of the site and research:
For three millennia, ancient Memphis was one of the most important Egyptian metropolises, either as the royal residence or, after the capital was moved to Thebes and later to Alexandria, as the “second capital” with magnificent palaces, temples and public buildings. Saqqara is the oldest and most prestigious part of the city’s necropolis. The Polish-Egyptian Archaeological Mission works in the area to the west of its most important monument – the Step Pyramid, which is the tomb of king Netjerykhet, now better known as Djoser. For many years, not much attention was paid to this part of Saqqara, but systematic archaeological research carried out by the Polish-Egyptian mission since 1987 has resulted in the discovery of, among others, an Old Kingdom necropolis of dignitaries as well as a cemetery of the inhabitants of Memphis founded in the same spot in the Late Period and the Ptolemaic period.
The research in Saqqara has been multidisciplinary from the very beginning and includes such fields as anthropology, paleozoology, paleobotany or geology. Conservation forms an integral part of the project.
One of the most enigmatic elements of the funerary complex of Netjerykhet is the so-called Dry Moat, a vast trench hewn in the bedrock around the royal tomb. The work of the Polish mission has contributed significantly to the study of the function of this structure. It seems it was a kind of barrier, which the deceased ruler had to cross before joining the gods in eternity. One of the obstacles might have been a long corridor with an unusual object at its end: a large harpoon of juniper wood, decorated with depictions of snakes carved in the characteristic style of Djoser’s reliefs. Only a small section of the Dry Moat has been excavated to date, but it is at present the focus of the Polish mission’s work. The researchers have also found the remains of temporary buildings and fragments of limestone steles which marked the limits of the construction site, thus supplying information concerning the development of the Step Pyramid complex.
The surroundings of the royal tomb were at first a sacred space. Only after a few centuries, in the area between the west wall of the complex and the edge of the Dry Moat, a vast cemetery was founded, the so-called Lower Necropolis. Rows of mastabas with walls decorated with vertical niches and projections which imitated Djoser’s wall ascended terrace-like to the monumental pyramid, creating a spectacular sight filled with religious references.
The first tomb discovered by the mission belonged to Merefnebef, who started his career as a modest courtier assisting the ruler with the morning toilette, but at the end of his life became a vizier, the highest dignitary in the realm of the Pharaohs. It seems that Merefnebef (and even more his son) was involved in a conspiracy that resulted in the murder of the ruler. This could be the reason for Merfnebef’s astounding career at the court of his successor but also for the sudden fall of the family when the rightful heir regained the throne.
When Merefnebef became vizier, the walls of his almost completed funerary chapel had already been decorated with beautiful, multicolored reliefs depicting the owner of the tomb with his family and servants during the funeral ceremony and daily activities. The tomb was not, however, magnificent enough for a vizier; therefore, it was rebuilt. In its final, unusual form, the rock chapel with a courtyard and portico was surmounted by an imposing mastaba. Only small fragments of the mastaba have been preserved, but the chapel demonstrates the craftsmanship of the ancient sculptors and painters (as well as the eventful life of its owner). Next to it, another richly-decorated tomb of a courtier named Nyankhnefertem was discovered.
Over 40 Old Kingdom tombs have been identified in this area to date, most of them in the form of brick mastabas. Here were buried courtiers responsible for the daily functioning of the royal palace, as attested by the titles they bore: Estate Manager, Chamberlain, Majordomo, Manager of Royal Meals and Linen, as well as priestesses of the goddess Hathor.
In the wall of the Dry Moat was hewn the tomb of Ichi, general and commander of an expedition whose name has been known for a long time from graffiti left on the road linking the Nile Valley with the Red Sea coast. But the inscriptions from his funerary chapel indicate that Ichi might have traveled to the mysterious land of Punt about 800 years before the famous expedition of Queen Hatshepsut took place.
The climate change at the end of the Old Kingdom brought about destructive rains and floods, and due to the recurrent catastrophes, the necropolis was abandoned. Only after almost a thousand years, this area began to be used again as a place of rest of the inhabitants of Memphis. The so-called Upper Necropolis provides valuable information about their health, living conditions and customs. The burials were usually very modest: among the 500 discovered so far, only a few had a wooden coffin or a cartonnage, sometimes accompanied by amulets or bronze figurines.
Season by season – “PCMA Newsletter”:
2017–12 Exhibition: “The vizier’s house of eternity. The tomb of Merefnebef and its discoverer” (Warsaw)
2016-02 Exhibition: “Two decades of excavations in Saqqara”
2013-11 Prof. Karol Myśliwiec celebrates a jubilee (pl)
2013-05 New publication: “Saqqara IV, The Funerary Complex of Nyankhnefertem”
2009-11 Exhibition: “Saqqara. Polish archaeological excavations” (Warsaw)
Bibliography of the project is available on the Mission’s website.