The archaeological treasures of Saqqara

Archaeological excavations at Saqqara are one of the focus areas of close cooperation established between France and Egypt long time ago. It is also an adventure that fascinates the public. Discover the unexpected treasures of Egyptian history, decipher the secrets of this ancient civilization, share the exciting work of a team of archaeologists raised an interest can not be denied. You can check the photo gallery at the end of the article or click here for the permalink

Mask sarcophagus (14 th century BC), Western Sector. © Photos Christian Decamps / Archaeological Mission of the Louvre in Saqqara

Saqqara is one of the oldest Egyptian sites searched. However, because of its vastness, many areas are still untouched, what was explored in the past have been forgotten, dismantled by uncontrolled excavations or buried in the rubble, but no publication mentioned . So campaigns by Christiane Ziegler since 1991 have revealed the whole section of the site’s history.

The Archaeological Mission of the Louvre in Saqqara

Popularized by two feature films of Frederick Wilner “The treasures of Saqqara (FR3, 2004) and The Secret of Treasure of Saqqara (FR3, 2005),” the Archaeological Mission of the Louvre in Saqqara was founded in 1991 by Christiane Ziegler, then curator Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre.

Archaeological excavations reveal a wealth of history

Year after year, different levels of human occupation have been identified and studied, revealing the history of this area during 3000 years at depth of about 10 meters.

In a place where the archaeological map was completely blank, excavations have revealed important funeral complexes, with several inviolate tombs , as well as residential areas. They have uncovered many wonderfully preserved objects: statues, bas-reliefs, richly decorated sarcophagi, and funerary objects of everyday life.

Since then, the exceptional discoveries have succeeded under her leadership. The excavations were funded by the National Museums ( RMN ) and the Mission Research and Technology of the Ministry of Culture. The multidisciplinary team includes researchers from abroad, French researchers from the CNRS, the Centre for Conservation and Restoration of Museums of France ( C2RMF ) and the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo ( Ifao ) and some researchers and technicians from the Louvre Museum.

The research focuses on the area of the mastaba (tomb) of Akhethotep whose richly decorated chapel that was sold to the Louvre in 1903 by the Egyptian government. They lighted the knowledge of a hitherto unexplored area of Saqqara, indicating human occupation over a period ranging from the Old Kingdom (2500 BC) until the Arab period (9th century AD).

The mission supports the establishment of an archaeological map of Saqqara, which is sorely lacking to this date.

Discoveries in paleography and ceramology:

In the field of paleography, the Old Kingdom inscriptions studied by researchers of the mission are a significant contribution to the new research program conducted by the paleographic French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo. A very rare pass, written in Arabic and accurately dated, illuminates in a new way the relationship between the Coptic community and new Arab conquerors.
In the field of ceramology, a detailed study conducted several years ago by G. Lécuyot is enriched by the discovery in the context of Greek vases dated very well. Other documents of foreign origin, such as bilingual texts in Egyptian and Aramaic, vases and pottery made ​​in the Middle East illustrate how, in the first millennium BC, Saqqara was part of a multicultural and Mediterranean.

Mummies in the service of Egyptian chronology

In the field of Egyptian chronology, the carbon-14 dating a samples from which the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt has given an export license, represent a new exceptional. The magnitude of the material and its excellent state of preservation were used to conduct comprehensive public analysis on materials and techniques of the ancient Egyptians

The radiographic study of fifty mummies performed by Dr. R. Lichtenberg .Finally, research on mummies conducted by Dr. F. Janot led to groundbreaking findings that were publishedin the medical scientific community.

 In search of the tomb of Akhethotep

Recall now the reasons why Christiane Ziegler to conduct a search at Saqqara : it was to find the original site of the tomb of Akhethotep that was scheduled to be published by the museum. Indeed, the beautifully decorated chapel, which was sold in 1903 by the Egyptian government, was dismantled and transported to the Louvre, and since then she shows for the Western audience one of the highlights of Egyptian art, that of the time of the pyramids . It probably dates from the reign of Niouserrê (circa 2453-2420 BC).

Today, the first objective was achieved : the mastaba which was within the chapel that was resembled in the Louvre has been located and sufficiently clear to be prepared for comprehensive plan . The current searched area is about 7000 m 2 and, in many ways, the altitude reached between the current ground level and the level of the Old Kingdom is 10 meters.

The study of the tomb of the Louvre began in 1991 . When archaeologists arrived on the site, they began to clear a large area disturbed by previous excavations. A thick layer of sand , carried by the wind of the desert, had covered all that remains in the place. Year after year, different levels of human occupation have been identified and studied, revealing a depth of about 10 meters, the history of this area during 3000 years.

Despite the destruction, the most recent remains at the higher levels , have retained an important archaeological and historical interest, enough not to be neglected, as did the diggers of the 19th century, at a time when the excavations were focused mainly on the monuments of the Pharaonic era .

 Different sectors of the archaeological site

The north-east and south-east, excavated in 1994-95, revealed the remains of mud brick houses on a stone base. The northeast corner was the most spacious: a vestibule paved with stone, limestone and with a central pillar seems to separate two rows of homes vis-à-vis. A thin plaster mortar covered the floor of one of these houses, the walls, mud brick, are kept to a height of 30-40 cm.

The southeast quadrant is also an isolated remnants. However the height of the walls kept on about 80 cm, the quality of the plaster covering the walls and architectural remains have inspired us to keep the sector to present a witness on the site at that time.

The study of Coptic buildings allowed to connect to the Monastery of St. Jeremiah, located a hundred meters directly to the south. There are two major phases of occupation. The first is dated 7th century and corresponds to the peak of the monastery, one of the most famous of Egypt. The second phase can be dated from the 9th century. The abandonment of the site by the Coptic community corresponds to the Monastery of St. Jeremiah and the general decline of Christianity in the country.

These remains are of double interest: first, they offer us valuable information about occupation of the site of Saqqara in later periods, on the other hand their very presence on our sector indicates that the earliest levels they covers are intact.

The city Coptic seems to have been built on a cemetery of Pharaonic Late Period. A thick layer of sand and pottery between the buildings of a group of Coptic burials, located at a lower level. We have uncovered hundreds of unpretentious sarcophagi . The areas studied showed a lot of surprises …

The sarcophagi of the Late Period

Mummy-shaped, they are executed in wood and mud and have a very colorful backdrop. The face, painted in bright pink or green, a symbol of renewal, is framed by a long wig with locks carefully detailed, the chest is often covered with a large necklace of flowers, images of gods and funerary texts without protective any proper name are shown on the tank and lid.

The tombs found: rare discoveries

It was at this same period belong the tombs discovered since 2003. They are carved into the rock and contain grave goods in an exceptional state of preservation. These are underground vaults that are accessed by deep wells of 5 to 15 meters. Four of them were found intact, which is rare . Accessed by deep wells more than 5 meters, they are located  northeast of the search.
The first chamber (A) is a gallery rock whose western wall is decorated with a series of false doors. It is likely that it was fitted to the Old Kingdom and reused later as evidenced by the material found in place. Its northern part is occupied by a beautiful wooden sarcophagus placed transversely. Was deposited in front of him all equipment related to the funeral and embalming, as large intact pottery vessels used by embalmer, and there was also rolled reed mats. This sarcophagus was used to support a accumulation of mummies bandelettées (fifteen visible) that were introduced after the fact, the original entrance of the long gallery now inaccessible due to site development. The gallery contains another wooden sarcophagus and a copy much simpler, of limestone . All mummies contained some very well preserved. The sarcophagi of wood can be dated 25 -26 th dynasties.
The second cave (C) is a small rectangular room, dug in the Gebel, in which rested a magnificent sarcophagus of wood stuccoed and painted in polychrome: the black background is
completely covered with funerary texts and small religious scenes. He was accompanied by a small cabinet topped by a bird Akhem, containing the bodies removed from the mummy, and a statuette of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. The proposed date for this set, 26, 27th relies on the owner’s name IAHM son of Psametikseneb.

The archaeological surprises

Hoping to locate access the first chamber (A) adjacent wells (H 1 and H2) were explored. As they often do not lead to the goal that was set, but a network of tunnels and underground rooms that have delivered a wealth of material from the I st millennium BC: intact sarcophagi, funerary statuettes (ushabti) ​​stored in their box, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, and a collection of sarcophagi beautiful decor, found disassembled and stacked.

Abdullah Al Abbadi


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