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In the Shadow of Djoser’s Pyramid

Research of Polish Archaeologists in Saqqara

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Karol Jan Myśliwiec

The book presents the discoveries made by the Polish archaeological mission in Saqqara, the central part of the largest ancient Egyptian royal necropolis. The area adjacent to the Pyramid of King Djoser on the monument’s west side, so far neglected by archaeologists, turned out to be an important burial place of the Egyptian nobility from two periods of Pharaonic history: the Old Kingdom (the late third millennium BC) and the Ptolemaic Period (the late first millennium BC). The earlier, lower cemetery yielded rock-hewn tombs with splendid wall decoration in relief and painting. The book also describes methods of conservation applied to the discovered artefacts and episodes from the mission’s life.

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Chapter 3. First steps

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Chapter 3. First steps

Abstract: The beginning of excavations on the west side of the “step pyramid.” Surprising results of first trial pits. Between diplomacy and friendship.

Keywords: geophysical survey, first mummies, mysterious walls.

Various factors determine the choice of a location for excavations. If they are rescue excavations, there is no choice. You need to dig where a motorway, a factory or a house is to be built. But sometimes, e.g. in the case of the construction of another dam on the Nile, which is going to flood an enormous area with the waters of an artificial lake, you get to choose the site. This is what happened at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s, when a new dam was being built in Aswan. The whole archaeological world rushed to help rescue the monuments and artefacts. Not only because the great international campaign was under UNESCO patronage but also because of the extraordinary rules concerning the division of the excavated relics, put in place due to the especially difficult work conditions caused by haste, the insufferable climate, and complicated desert logistics. And so, every country participating in the campaign could receive half of the archaeological material it excavated, or its equivalent. By such means, several countries accumulated new wealth, acquiring small Nubian shrines, taken out of their original contexts, then reconstructed and placed in honorary locations. One such shrine stands today on a hill next to the Royal Palace in Madrid, two others were placed in the great museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, the Netherlands.1

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Having completed the prospection of the whole area destined to be flooded by the waters of the Nubian (or Nasser) Lake, Professor Kazimierz Michałowski chose Faras located in Sudanese Nubia, close to the Egyptian-Sudanese border. On the surface of the hill lay blocks from a temple of the New Kingdom period, decorated with hieroglyphic inscriptions.2 The professor believed that the hill’s interior concealed this very temple. Reality surpassed all his expectations. He found something that the global media immediately proclaimed to be the “Faras miracle,” and about the discoverer it was written that he had “drawn the best ticket at the [Nubian] lottery:” a giant early-Christian cathedral, the walls of which were covered with several layers of magnificent paintings, reflecting centuries of the development of Nubian art.3

Polish research in Alexandria also began with rescue excavations. When bulldozers tried in vain to soak their teeth into the resistant matter of white marble blocks, arranged in a sequence with an oddly rounded edge, Kazimierz Michałowski, luckily lecturing at the time at the University of Alexandria as a visiting professor, was summoned immediately. With no hint of hesitation he announced, “This is an ancient theatre!” He saved a whole district of the cosmopolitan metropolis from the first centuries AD. Soon systematic Polish excavations commenced there, and they continue to this day.

A great role in the choice of a location for an excavation site is played by written sources. In many cases, they identify with a significant degree of probability where one can expect to find the ruins of an ancient city, and even provide its name. However, sometimes the opposite occurs, when one knows the toponym but not the city’s location. Even more frequently, one excavates the remains of impressive architecture, not knowing the name of the city which has revealed a fragment of its past glory. It was on the basis of studies into a papyrus mentioning a previously unknown yet important monastic centre in the Fayum Oasis that Professor Ewa Wipszycka-Bravo initiated research in modern-day Naqlun, where Professor Włodzimierz Godlewski’s archaeological mission later discovered countless riches of Early Christian culture.4

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Archaeological identification of sites previously known only from written sources happens increasingly more often thanks to modern Arabic names. Oftentimes, they conceal a transformed ancient toponym. Present-day Naqlun bears the echoes of the ancient Naqloni, and Tell Atrib is nothing but the Coptic Atrepe, created from the Greek Athribis, which, in turn, is derived from the Old Egyptian Hut-(ta)-heri-ib(et). This later name can be translated as ‘the abode [located] at the heart,’ which would be an allusion to the local relic upon which the whole local theology was constructed in pharaonic times. According to primaeval beliefs, here stored was the heart of Osiris, the god dismembered by his mortal enemy, Seth.5 It is in search of such associations, combining language, religion and topography, leading to the identification of ancient towns, that Egyptologists organise excursions to various provinces of modern Egypt. The researchers visit small villages, talk to the inhabitants, listen to their tales, while simultaneously closely observing whether the walls of the simple huts might not contain a stone block with the remains of a text in one of the ancient languages. Even just a few so preserved hieroglyphs can point in the right direction, enabling the identification of an ancient city.

In the case of Saqqara, there was no need to play the role of detectives starting an investigation from ground zero. Rather, from the very beginning we were surprised that at a site where archaeological research in Egyptology had begun 150 years ago, where teams of researchers from the whole world had fought to receive excavation permits, no one had so far expressed interest in the area neighbouring the oldest pyramid in the world from the west. It surprised us even more so that in general in ancient Egypt the west side was the domain of the dead. Necropoles were located on the west sides of cities, and the god of the dead was referred to using the epithet ‘one who is at the forefront [of the inhabitants] of the west.’ It was difficult to imagine that there would be an archaeological desert on the west side of a pyramid especially venerated as the creation of the deified architect Imhotep.6 Even the thought seemed so ridiculous that I decided to discuss the problem first with the biggest scientific authorities in Saqqara archaeology. And there was no bigger expert on Saqqara at the time than Jean-Philippe Lauer.7 After I asked ←99 | 100→him what he thought about the potential excavations on the west side of the ‘step pyramid,’ he replied succinctly, “If you don’t have plenty of time and money to lose, don’t go digging there. There might be an ancient rubbish heap and perhaps a quarry at best.” His thinking was based, I assume, on the premise that if the frontal part of Djoser’s tomb complex was located on the eastern side of the whole temenos, then only the ‘tool shed’ could be situated on the opposite side, and it – of course – had to be somewhere.

There was no need for better encouragement. Being acquainted with the mentality, eschatology and funerary customs of the Ancient Egyptians, I could not doubt for a second that the area adjacent to the pyramid complex from the west had to be an important part of the royal necropolis, used for sepulchral or sacral purposes at least at one stage of its history encompassing 4,000 years. I immediately began to prepare the grounds for our excavations. From the logical point of view, it seemed absolutely impossible. Egypt had just issued a decree that foreign missions would not be provided with new excavation licenses in the Memphite Necropolis pyramid belt. The whole area, covering several dozen kilometres in length, would be researched exclusively by Egyptian missions.

One needs great faith not to give up despite such a decision reached by the government. When students ask me today what is most important in science, I always give the same reply: faith. It might have been Professor Michałowski who implanted this in me, he who always repeated “Nothing is impossible.” And who did not tolerate defeatists among his team.

The head of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation at the time (in 1987) was Professor Abdel Halim Nur el-Din (1943–2016), an excellent Egyptologist who specialised in reading the most simplified Egyptian script, from the first millennium BC, called demotic writing. He was not only an accomplished scholar but also a human being of wide intellectual horizons and uncommon powers of perception, allowing him to easily separate wheat from chaff. He felt friendship and respect towards Polish archaeologists ever since our excavations had been led by Professor Michałowski. He valued the achievements of the Polish research and conservatory teams in Deir el-Bahari and Alexandria highly. He knew that by giving an archaeological site into the hands of the Polish school of archaeology, he would rid the host country of at least one concern: worrying about the conservation of the discovered monuments and artefacts. I confided my ‘Saqqara dreams’ to ←100 | 101→Nur el-Din. He agreed to a reconnaissance of the area extending to the west of the pyramid. Even though he could theoretically do as he pleased being the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation, his decision was an act of great bravery. More than one of his predecessors had paid for their ill decisions with their job. For the following ten years, I was able to return the favour to some small extent at the University of Warsaw, where I supervised the PhD project of his assistant from the University of Fayum.

It should also be mentioned that our mission was also treated with extraordinary goodwill by Abdel Halim Nur el-Din’s successor, an archaeologist of unique imagination and charisma, famous internationally beyond the Egyptological world, Professor Zahi Hawass. Years earlier, as a beginning inspector in the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation, he was also able to meet with the creator of the Polish school of archaeology. As the head of the Polish mission to Saqqara, I had to pay him a visit for the first time after he had been promoted to the position of director managing the whole belt of the Great Pyramids. His office was located in Giza, right next to the Pyramid of Cheops. Oblivious to the attitude this globetrotter with an American degree might have towards our modest mission, I entered his office with somewhat shaky knees. He looked at me with his penetrating gaze, which one could just as well call piercing, and a moment of silence ensued, long enough a moment for me to see what was lying on his desk. It was the first issue of a new glossy American archaeological magazine, in which an article about Zahi was followed by my publication on Saqqara.8 The journal was open on the page of my text where a story was included in an embedded box about the gift Professor Michałowski had received during the war at the POW camp in Woldenberg. As already mentioned, the rais, the supervisor of the Edfu excavation workforce, sent a package with dates and biscuits to his imprisoned boss as a humble expression of his gratitude for the friendly treatment of the Egyptians during the excavations.9 Instead of “Good morning,” Zahi said, “You wrote it well.” Once again, I could witness how sensitive our Egyptian colleagues are to the treatment they receive from foreigners, and how much depends on that.

But in archaeology it is not only sentiments that matter. An excavation mission, especially a beginning team at a site as prominent as Saqqara, needs to legitimise itself quickly with scientific achievements to prove its competence and maintain its permit. One such measure of the proper qualifications are publications in the most popular international languages, particularly ←101 | 102→a monograph which must be published no later than five years after a discovery. Some more ‘lingering’ missions know that they can get away with slight deviations from this rule, yet even then this can sometimes cost them dearly. A mission which has just come into existence and has not yet proven anything is observed closely not only by the Egyptian authorities but also by the whole Egyptological world. As a result we put a lot of effort into ensuring that we publish a monograph presenting the research to the international scientific scene as soon as possible after the first great discovery. Zahi Hawass’s attitude towards our mission would no doubt be less courteous today if not our publications. It is also an expression of recognition and cooperation that one of the famous Egyptian’s closest long-term colleagues came nowhere else but to Poland, first to obtain her master’s degree (published in book format),10 and then to prepare her PhD dissertation, also at the University of Warsaw.

After receiving permission for excavations on the western side of the pyramid, we set out for our first campaign in 1987. As in Tell Atrib before, we began with a geophysical survey and trial pits. Tomasz Herbich, our geophysicist, did not expect much from the electromagnetic resonance at this spot as the sand did not contrast visibly with the stone which we hoped to encounter in the upper layers of this area, thus far neglected by archaeologists. When, however, after two weeks of surveying, the geophysical map was created, it consisted almost exclusively of anomalies11 – as geophysicists refer in their jargon to lines reflecting the presence of contrasting materials underground, something that practically always foreshadows the presence of archaeological structures. This caused utter astonishment. We did not yet know that mud brick was responsible for these contrasts, a material commonly used for the above-ground part of mastabas during the Old Kingdom.

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Amid this unexpected embarras de richesse, the choice of spots for conducting further sondages was not at all obvious. We decided to follow archaeological premises and carry out three tentative trial pits determined by the logic of the topography.12 Each of them consisted of making a small trench (5x5m) and keen observation of the sequence of archaeological layers. We placed the first trial pit almost exactly on the extension of the pyramid’s axis in the western direction, at a distance of about 100 metres from the monument. Symmetry was one of the fundamental rules of spatial thinking in Ancient Egypt, both in architecture and in figural art. The second survey we placed on the northernmost edges of the researched area, expecting to discover the posthumous neighbours of the Ptahhoteps, a famous family from the top of the social ladder towards the end of the Fifth Dynasty and the owners of a stunning mastaba which is one of Saqqara’s biggest touristic attractions. Finally, we decided to carry out the third trial pit on the slopes of a sandy oblong hill, running from the Ptahhoteps’ tomb in the southern direction. We wanted to see if there were any natural geological formations located under the layer of sand, or perhaps another monumental structure built in Saqqara by human hands.

Every single one of the three trial pits resulted in a surprise. The first revealed a wall, meridionally parallel to the west side of the Djoser Pyramid.13 Already the construction of the wall suggested that it was an architectural structure from the Old Kingdom. These were irregular stone blocks, connected with mud mortar, and on the surface of the wall: a column drum in a shape characteristic for the period. Since we did not reach any of the wall’s ends, we could not dismiss the possibility that it might have surrounded ←104 | 105→the entire holy pyramid complex, outside of its temenos enclosed by the giant risalit wall.14 This would thus have been yet another obstacle scaring away any unwanted visitors from the royal necropolis. We even considered whether it might not be a wall from the times of the pyramid’s construction, i.e. from the beginning of the Third Dynasty, as the layer of sand stuck to it contained a significant number of small faience tiles, similar to those decorating the walls of some of the underground chambers in the Djoser complex.15 Ten years later, we were to discover that all of these hypotheses were wrong.

The second trial pit surprised us with a thicket of little grave shafts, cut into the rock and leading to tomb chambers, undoubtedly from the late Old Kingdom period.16 In one corner of the courtyard located between these shafts, carefully crafted entrances to two larger chambers emerged, filled with sand almost up to the ceiling. On the surface of the deposit, there were remains of cartonnages, i.e. gypsum mummy ‘casings,’ covered with polychrome paintings characteristic for the Ptolemaic period.17 Years later, it would come to light that this discovery, connecting elements of third-millennium BC architecture with the ragged mummies from a period over 2,000 years later, was diagnostic for the unusual stratigraphy of the area we were researching.

The third pit showed us that the mound of sand hid a natural hill of extremely fragile limestone which had been perforated by the Old Kingdom grave shafts.18 Precisely in the middle of our small hole, there lay a larger shaft, with the remains of a mummy buried in the sand, and – to the side – a piece of a large amphora from the Early Christian period, also containing human remains. Hence, we learned the necropolis on the west side of the oldest pyramid was still in use when an enormous monastery, one of the ←105 | 106→biggest centres of Christian culture in Egypt, was functioning on its southern side.19

The conclusion resulting from our first excavation campaign was straightforward: for at least 3,000 years, starting from the construction of the first pyramid, there was a necropolis on the west side of the monument, in which initially pharaohs’ courtiers had been buried, and then members of the middle class. No one doubted that the discovery required further research. With this conviction, we left Saqqara in 1987. None of us suspected that we would have to wait nine years to continue our work.

Our research generated the most interest abroad. As there was now certainty that the western part of Saqqara was not archaeologically sterile ground, missions from various countries, especially those richer than Poland, started to spring up there like mushrooms. The Japanese were the first to appear, entering the hill deserted by the Egyptian army, in the north-western part of Saqqara. In spite of the ‘archaeological’ activities of the army, architectural structures from different periods had been preserved – primarily the remains of a splendid building erected from blocks of snow-white limestone for the aforementioned Khaemweset, one of the oldest sons of Ramesses II, a famous restorer and admirer of funerary monuments from the times of the Old Kingdom.20 The quality of the reliefs preserved on these blocks proves that the elegant building was the creation of the best Memphite artists from the Ramesside period.

In the immediate proximity of our findings, a Scottish mission commenced research under the direction of the geophysicist, Ian Mathieson (1927–2010). They first carried out geophysical surveys, and then archaeological studies on the western side of the hill where we had conducted our trial pit no. 3. They subsequently included the whole Saqqara in their geophysical prospection, with the intention of publishing a detailed archaeological map of the huge area. In the last years of his activities, Mathieson focused on the area located north of the Djoser Pyramid.21 Could he have gotten envious of his fellow countryman, Walter B. Emery, who had once searched for Imhotep’s grave in this part of Saqqara? On the last of the geophysical plans he made, on which one can see the outlines of underground structures, the Scottish geophysicist noticed two large, parallel rectangular ←106 | 107→buildings, and announced them to be Imhotep’s grave.22 Soon afterwards he died, like Emery after discovering a gallery of mummified animals.

The foreign missions, which – influenced by our discoveries – began working in this area of Saqqara were soon joined by Egyptian archaeologists. They chose the area to the south-west of the Djoser Pyramid, behind the Pyramid of Unas, the first ruler whose funerary chamber walls had been decorated with the Pyramid Texts.23 The necropolis of the noblemen from the dusk of the Old Kingdom was researched there under the direction of Dr Zahi Hawass. Their graves stand out due to their original architectural and iconographic features.

Polish research in Saqqara began at an unfortunate time of the increased activities of tomb robber gangs in the Memphite necropolis, pillaging especially the ancient graves closer to the desert. The Egyptian authorities decided to secure the safety of the discovered relics by obliging all active foreign missions to construct their own storehouses in the vicinity of the excavated area. New parameters were introduced for the storehouses. Unfortunately, this was a cost beyond our resources. We had to make peace with the thought we would not be coming back to Saqqara in 1988.

These were particularly difficult times for Polish science. The communist state, cemented in an ideological shell and by economic scarcity, had hardly any financial capabilities and was declining quicker by the day, while the capitalist system of sponsorship had not emerged yet. When I explain this to Polish trips visiting us sometimes at the excavation site, I tell a joke overheard in childhood from the unrivalled joke-teller Kazimierz Rudzki (n.b. a fellow inmate of Professor Michałowski from the Oflag in Woldenberg) in the radio program Wesoły kramik (Happy Booth) – probably the only joke I have ever remembered: “A famous New York painter announces an exhibition for his newest piece. The social elites gather, everyone holding glasses of champagne, the huge painting is covered by a white sheet of material. The anticipated moment arrives, the artist energetically pulls the sheet off and reveals … the whiteness of an empty surface. Having finished her champagne, one of the ladies brings herself to ask the master: ‘And what does this painting represent?’ ‘What do you mean by “what”!,’ he replies. ‘It is crystal clear: the crossing of the Red Sea by the Jews.’ ‘Where are the Jews?’ ‘They have already crossed.’ ‘And where are the Egyptians?’ ‘They have not arrived yet.’ ‘Then where is the sea?’ ‘Where! But obviously, it has been parted!’ This was precisely the situation of Polish science during the political ←107 | 108→transformation. In turn, following the transformation, changes in the financial sector did not take place immediately.

Years were passing by and colleagues would mock, “So when are you going back to your hole in Saqqara?” Help came finally from the least expected direction. In 1995, I was asked about Saqqara by the priest (not yet a prelate) Wiesław Niewęgłowski, the national pastor of the creative community. I have always admired his faith in the Holy Spirit, and especially the practical implications of this faith, visible particularly when, as a sign of resistance against communist hopelessness, we would meet at Miodowa Street in the headquarters of the Warsaw Curia, to give talks and discuss all possible and ‘impossible’ topics. He kept infecting us with his incorrigible optimism. He was happy to see lecturers from the archaeological community as he believed this discipline to be an important part of our national identity. I wryly answered his question about Saqqara with a few dry facts, feeling rather hopeless about this bringing any effects. Not thinking much, he then took me to the editorial office of Rzeczpospolita (one of the most popular Polish newspapers), in which he was a columnist at the time. Amidst the clouds of smoke billowing from the pipe of the sorely missed and unforgettable editor-in-chief Dariusz Fikus (1932–1996), we had a 15-minute-long conversation, embellished by the man’s hearty laughter, all of which was concluded with a decision: Rzeczpospolita would finance our next campaign in full. It is hard for me to compare this moment to any other in my life. It had occurred a few other times that some formerly unknown people would suddenly appear out of the blue, in a deus ex machina turn of events, to offer me help absolutely altruistically. Yet in this case, I simply could not believe my own luck; I was so shocked that I probably did not even cough up a ‘thank you’ to Padre Wiesław after we left the office.

Let us thus get back to Saqqara. It was 1996. We decided to focus completely on our old trench no. 1, the one closest to the pyramid. We first wanted to check how far the mysterious wall parallel to the pyramid stretched northward and southward. Here we encountered our first surprise: at a distance of less than a metre behind each of the opposite edges of the trench, the wall turns at a right angle to the east, that is – towards the Djoser Pyramid.24 Thus, our first hypothesis that the wall could have encompassed the whole pyramid turned out to be incorrect. It had probably encircled a structure from the Old Kingdom, but what structure would it have been? This question determined the direction of our subsequent work. ←108 | 109→We had to move further to the east to see what structure it could be. From the thick layer of sand and the rubbish heap beneath, an immense amount of Old Kingdom pottery and some more faience tiles with a sky-blue surface began to emerge.

We also encountered ‘our’ first human skeletons.25 Some were lying in the sand without any casings, some were placed on mats woven from Nile reed, others yet in reed coffins preserved in fragments. When we finally uncovered an adult mummy deposited in a terracotta chest, covered with a plastically modelled lid,26 we had no doubts that we were operating in a cemetery site from the Ptolemaic Period, i.e. from the last three centuries BC (Figs. 3536 and 37–38). This was confirmed by the specific cartonnage decoration in which the mummy was shrouded. We subsequently discovered the next mummy with a cartonnage within an anthropoid hollow forged into the rock surface (Fig. 39).27 The depression was much larger than the ←109 | 110→mummy, which, as a result of anthropological studies, was found to be that of a teenage youth. The burial, untouched by grave robbers, was covered with a reed mat fixed with large stone blocks. A gilded surface was preserved in the mask part of the cartonnage, as well as some beautiful polychromy on the trunk portion, on which the goddess of the sky, Nut, is represented stretching her wings out over the deceased.28

However, of even more importance than the mummy was the vertical cross-section through the rock in which the anthropoid hollow had been made (Fig. 40). It clearly showed that at the moment when the stonemason was carving out this place of eternal rest into the rock for the young person the rock was by no means still not unscathed. Its levelled surface was covered with a thick layer of mud, in which one could observe with the naked eye thousands of tiny animal bones. Upon closer inspection, it turned out there was not one but manifold layers, and palaeozoological research enabled identifying the various animals, which had no doubt ended up here ←110 | 111→via a sacrificial table.29 That the place was once used for ritual purposes we found promptly after revealing the first portions of the mud floor covering the rock. On the surface of the earthen floor, traces of mobile altars remained, on which offerings had been burnt as part of the cult of the dead and the gods.30 These remains are in the shape of circular bands fired red, with a black circular spot inside. The latter consists of ashes, which would fall from the altar following the incineration of various plants and animals. From which follows that the courtyard we unearthed, encircled by a simple ←111 | 112→stone-mud wall, had originally, i.e. in the times of the Old Kingdom, been a cult place before it became a cemetery 2,000 years later. But who exactly had been worshipped here?

The mystery was not resolved even by the next discovery made during the slow and careful exploration of the gigantic wall of sand covering the eastern part of the courtyard. At one point, under the layer containing the mummies, a mud-brick ruin emerged. The further east we moved, the more compact, regular and taller this brick curtain was. The diagonal orientation of the brick layers suggested, however, that this ‘wall’ was not at its original location, but instead belonged to some collapsed construction.31 The original context and function of the latter could not be inferred from the ruin’s morphology. Some of my colleagues even wondered if this could not have been a kind of brick pyramid miniature, e.g. a model for Djoser, or its copy for ritual purposes. Nonetheless, we were not to test this bold hypothesis during this campaign. With a mystery in the bag, we returned to Poland. ←112 | 113→ ←113 | 114→This ‘advance’ on an important discovery caused much excitement among the Polish archaeological community for a year and inspired decision-makers to generosity larger than before.

However, there is a lot more to an archaeologist’s work than science alone. At the beginning of my excavation ‘career,’ a certain American colleague told me that, from the moment he became head of an archaeological mission, he would spend three quarters of his time every year looking for money, devoting merely one quarter to academic matters. Back then I had taken it for a joke. But one always pays a cost for naivety, as I have already described above. Once you find the funds, another problem arrives on the horizon: the logistics. Every archaeological mission has to solve this issue individually, depending on thousands of possible conditions. At times, you need to seriously rack your brains, and that is the case with Saqqara.

In Saqqara, every inch of ground is either a historic area or farmland, or else is covered by buildings. There is no way to pitch tents to set up a camp, which would seem the most natural solution when excavations are being carried out in a desert, far from any larger human settlements. In Saqqara, you need to put a lot of effort first into finding a place to work and rest for the team of researchers. Archaeological missions operating here for years have built houses for their own use in the historic area, especially on the eastern slope of the Saqqara plateau. The French have their headquarters here next to the ancient Bubasteion (the place of worship of the holy cats, i.e. zoomorphic incarnations of the Goddess Bastet), and the English in a more discrete spot to the north, right next to an archaic necropolis. Over ten years ago, the Egyptian Antiques Organisation forbid similar practices; moreover, they even started to demolish the already existing houses.

After a long search before our first campaign, we finally found accommodation for our mission. It was located about 10 km from our excavation site, right next to the canal by the only road at the time connecting Cairo with Luxor, that is, the north with the south of the country. No matter that the house stood at the crossing of two roads, so that right next to our ears all the trucks carrying the heaviest cargoes cross-country overnight would stop with the loudest of clamour. No matter that, as soon as the first lamp was lit, millions of mosquitoes would fly over from the canal metres away and no clothing on the victim’s body would pose a barrier for them.

One could even come to enjoy the roar coming from behind the second wall, where the owner of the house, a smith, had his workshop. He of course only worked at night, because in the daytime he would not have been able to cope with the synthesis of air and anvil temperatures. It was for these kinds of experiences that I had prepared myself for during my 10 years in Tell Atrib (the Nile Delta), where we had rented the ground floor from a numerous family, in a house by a street where hundreds of children played ←114 | 115→during the night. There, in turn, our neighbour had been a carpenter, who naturally had to rest during the day. Nothing I could say would amuse our host more than my request to perhaps discreetly influence the working hours of the valued craftsman. “Have a cup of tea in the evening, you’ll sleep well then,” Mohammed advised. But of course, if he had worked different hours, the carpenter would not have heard the incessant stream of gossip flowing in through all the nearby windows and doors! The biggest asset for us of living there was its location right next to the excavation site.

As a result, at Tell Atrib I had the luxury that, after a short break from work, which enabled the Egyptian laborers to consume their breakfast at 10:30 am, I could open the window of our dining room, functioning simultaneously as our storage and living room, after which I would call to our Egyptian inspector called Naga, luckily a lady with a great sense of humour, “Madame Naga, ana gowah” (“Mrs. Naga, I’m inside;” both words, ‘naga’ and ‘gowah,’ meaning ‘nude’ in Polish). This meant, no more no less, that I was waiting for her inside the house to fulfil our daily duty: write the newly-discovered artefacts down in the Egyptian registry, she in Arabic and I in English. At Tell Atrib, we had not blamed the mosquitoes, flies, fleas, bedbugs. rats, mice, lizards and other creatures for their regular visits. Such is the law of the jungle. But the rooster was a bit of a problem. Due to the building’s architecture, he was its most important inhabitant. For the middle of the house was a kind of a well with a gap at the top and the bottom situated at street level. The rooster would begin his ‘concerts’ at the least expected times between midnight and dawn. The ‘well’ was too narrow to reach the animal from above, and the key to the gate, invisible from above, was protected by the host as if it was his most prized possession. We proposed that we would pay for him to make chicken soup for the family, but to no avail. Mohammed was apparently an animal-lover, very much attached to his rooster.

In turn, in Saqqara the function of the rooster was performed by the rats, or in fact by the rat king, as it was to transpire towards the end of this tragic story. The rats also worked exclusively at night. Whenever we went to sleep in our dormitory, a room shared by all the mission members, pawing on the outside surface of the wooden door would begin immediately. With time the hole at the bottom edge of the door was so large that it was our opinion it would enable a rat to enter the room. But not even then did the music stop. Maybe the rat had a toothache or maybe he was giving some acoustic signs to his underlings. In any case, we were ripe for the ultimate solution. We placed micro-sandwiches filled with poison in a few spots around the room. Several rats fell for them right away but the nightly scratching on the door did not cease. We increased the dosage and waited patiently for several days. Finally, one day, as I stood in the middle of the room, I noticed a sturdier ←115 | 116→rat, who slowly waddled out of a hole in the floor, stopping at a distance of less than a metre from me, after which he raised his head, looked me in the eye, nodded twice, and died. How did he know I was the murderer? No one had ever said goodbye to me in such an honourable manner. But how much he would have had to say to me! I stood silent and dumbstruck. I understood then why medical experiments requiring simulations of human behaviour are carried out on rats.

During the next several campaigns, we rented out different apartments, all of which left no space for boredom. A beautiful palace, gleaming with the whiteness of its columns and walls, erected in the middle of farmland by the ex-wife of an important dignitary to the Security Office, turned out to be a mock-up of a house, much the same as some patent-leather shoes that can only be worn by the dead. Inside there was one large room, a kind of hangar, in which the mission members slept in a pile. It soon turned out the sewage system did not work, and so one had to exhibit a lot of creativity in looking for secluded places, which nonetheless did not save us from the stink of the constantly reviving stagnant puddle by the wall of the house.

We were relieved to find a house in the desert for our next campaign, or actually on the border of the desert and adjacent to a palm grove in the Saqqara village, from which you could promptly reach, although uphill all the way, the Djoser Pyramid on foot, if only we did not have to carry our equipment and if only the Security Office would have allowed for such ‘shortcuts.’ We drove a car instead, cutting through the enormous rubbish dump that stretched out among the palms in the romantic grove. As we were renting this house from a European woman, also the ex-wife of an important Egyptian personage, we were lulled by some sort of irrational sense of security. Until one night, right before falling asleep after a hard day’s work, the idea popped into my head to look at the full moon. Instead of one, I saw two moons. The second moon was the reflection of the first in the lake that had suddenly appeared in the palm grove, almost entirely covering the junkyard, through which the only road to the excavation site ran. An anonymous person from the local government had ordered the unclogging of a segment of the canal running through the village nearby our house.

I immediately run across the desert to the house of Tareq, one of our best workmen, who lived close by. We could always count on his help in any difficult situations. Seeing that we were at risk of being flooded, by some miracle, even though it was already after midnight, Tareq managed to get us a bulldozer and tractor which prepared a levee for our car. Tareq is a whole separate chapter in the history of our mission. While he was incredibly reliable during our first several seasons, he later fell under the influence of his more cunning friends, who used up their whole, undeniable intellect on conspiring what to do in order to do nothing. I gave the nickname ←116 | 117→‘madrasa OPR’ to this peculiar lazybones’ trade union. The first part of the name is Arabic and means ‘school,’ the second is Polish, an abbreviation for a verb-derived noun, which today would probably even be used in our Parliament (where verbal decency is progressively disappearing) without hesitation. The verb I have in mind is ‘opierdalać się,’ which literally means ‘to bugger about,’ but which is much more vulgar than its English counterpart. Twenty years ago, I would have been uncomfortable uttering the word even in the company of Arab labourers, who I assumed did not understand any of it. I underestimated the linguistic and onomatopoeic intuitions of the Egyptians. The word ‘o-peh-er’ (pronounced /ɔ-pɛ-ɛr/) immediately appealed to the workmen, as they rightly sensed what it could mean. It came into common usage. More than that, it even became an indispensable part of the excavation’s jargon. Any time someone would fake a stomach ache, his colleagues would wink at me, whispering ‘o-peh-er.’

No means of persuasion helped and we had to part ways with Tareq. However, remembering his past services, I gave him a recommendation letter when we parted ways. While saying goodbye, I tore a piece of paper out of a notebook and jotted down several not-so-true sentences. I believed that Tareq would not even care to carry these ‘doodles’ as far as his house. Yet I was wrong again. He set off from Saqqara to Cairo bright and early the next day and went straight to the German Archaeological Institute. He was taken in by the head of the institute himself. Having read the recommendation, he hired the ‘OPR-er’ straight away to work with the German missions. A year later, I accidentally ran into Tareq on the street. He had gained weight considerably. He invited me to his house for tea and told me about his work with the Germans. He made five times as much as with our mission. Of course, I did not tell him that we were very familiar with these proportions from our own experiences. Still, he had no mental barriers in reminding me, “It’s thanks to you.”

It took us years to find accommodation where the mission could work and rest. In the quiet back part of an Arabic house, located between the road leading to the historic area and the farming fields, we found a sequence of nine small rooms as if created for our mission. Each one contains two beds, a table and a washbasin. Except for the rats, the mosquitoes and the flies, there are no unwanted guests. Birds oftentimes stroll on the lawn in front of the house, mostly colourful hoopoes and white ibises. However, this ‘luxury’ turned out to be very costly. After much haggling with the house owner, I dropped by with a final farewell visit. I told him that unfortunately we could not afford the negotiated price. “Just a moment,” Mr. Bakr interrupted, “we have a common friend. I learned about this just yesterday when your friend Sherif, my classmate from the American University of Cairo, visited me. We started talking about the Polish mission and Sherif begged ←117 | 118→me to rent you the place at a price you could afford.” I was dumbfounded. Yet again, I realised that anything is possible in Egypt, you only need to hit the rock bottom of despair for an invisible helpful hand to reach out to you, according to the deus ex machina principle. Sherif El-Hakim is the son of one of the most famous Egyptian architects, the designer of the museum in Luxor.32 His father later designed the Nubian Museum in Aswan, and when the project was stolen from him by the state, he died of a heart attack. Sherif El-Hakim was one of the first Egyptians I met after arriving in the country in 1969. I was invited to the El-Hakims’ house when the father was still alive, brought there by our great, sorely missed Arabist, Barbara Czerniak (1936–2010). We now stay at Mr Bakr’s property every year during the excavations, and I had the opportunity to return Sherif’s favour a few years ago when I wrote an introduction to his book of poetry published in France.33 You need friends in life – in Egypt as well. Maybe especially there.

When I think about these predicaments today, I recall an episode from the life of a friend of mine, who worked for over ten years at our Station (the old name of the Centre) in Cairo, doing such odd jobs as making beds for visiting fellows, managing the key to the warehouse, caring for the cleanliness of the rooms, and so on. It does not especially matter that she is the daughter of Jan Zamoyski, the last representative of one of the most meritorious families of Polish nobility, and the wife to the ex-secretary general of the Station, the head of the Centre after Professor Michałowski’s death. For us, fellows in the Centre at the time, it mattered that Elżbieta carried out these duties incredibly diligently, with happiness, and a conviction that she was serving a common cause. Moreover, she was exceedingly humble and shy. She would have never thought to demand anything for herself. When after many years she took her first holiday, which she officially had the right to do every two years, and decided to visit Poland, someone prompted her to go to the Ministry since she should also receive a plane ticket. She went and stood in front of an important official who, hearing the question, raised her voice, “If I were like you, people permanently vacationing under the palm trees, it wouldn’t even cross my mind to ask for some ticket.”


1 The Temple of Debod (Madrid): F. J. Martín Valentín et al., Debod: Tres décadas de historia en Madrid, Madrid 2001. The Temple of Dendur (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York): C. Aldred, The Temple of Dendur, New York 1978. The Temple of Taffah (Museum of Antiquities in Leiden): H. D. Schneider, Taffeh: rond de wederopbouw van een Nubische tempel, Leiden 1979; M. J. Raven, “The Temple of Taffeh: A Study of Details,” Oudheidkundige mededeelingen van het Rijksmuseum van Oudheden te Leiden 76 (1996), pp. 41–62; M. J. Raven, “The Temple of Taffeh,” Oudheidkundige mededeelingen van het Rijksmuseum van Oudheden te Leiden 79 (1999), pp. 81–102. See also: D. Arnold, Temples of the Last Pharaohs, Oxford 1999, p. 193 (Debod), p. 240 (Taffah), p. 244 (Dendur); and K. Myśliwiec, Herr Beider Länder. Ӓgypten im 1. Jahrtausend v. Chr, Mainz am Rhein 1998, figs. 56–57, p. 215, figs. 82–83; K. Myśliwiec, The Twilight of Ancient Egypt. First Millennium B.C.E., Ithaca–London 2003, pp. 195–196, fig. 56, 57.

2 J. Karkowski, The Pharaonic Inscriptions from Faras (“Faras” 5), Warszawa 1981.

3 K. Michałowski, “Polish Excavations at Faras 1961,” Kush. Journal of the Sudan Antiquities Service 10 (1962), pp. 220–244 and Kazimierz Michałowski’s reports in Kush. Journal of the Sudan Antiquities Service 11 (1963), pp. 233–256; 12 (1964), pp. 195–207, 13 (1965), pp. 177–189; cf. W. Godlewski, Pachoras – The Cathedrals of Aetios, Paulos and Petros. The Architecture (“PAM Supplement Series” 1), Warszawa 2006.

4 W. Godlewski, “Naqlun,” pp. 171–203.

5 P. Vernus, Athribis, ch. 2, fn. 19.

6 D. Wildung, Imhotep und Amenhotep: Gottwerdung im alten Ägypten, Berlin 1977, pp. 1–244; B. Jamieson, M.D. Hurry, Imhotep: The Egyptian God of Medicine, Ares Pub. 1978; M. K. Asante, From Imhotep to Akhenaten: An Introduction to Egyptian Philosophers, Menaibuc 2004; K. Ryholt, The Life of Imhotep (P. Carlsberg 85), in: G. Widmer, D. Devauchelle (eds.), Actes du IXe Congrès International des Études Démotiques, Le Caire 2009, pp. 305–315.

7 J.-Ph. Lauer, La Pyramide a degrés, Vol. 1–2: L’architecture, Fouilles ā Saqqarah, Le Caire 1936; Vol. 3: Compléments, Le Caire 1939. See the bibliography of Jean-Philippe Lauer’s texts and studies on the researcher, in: C. Berger and B. Mathieu (eds.), Études sur l’Ancien Empire et la nécropole de Saqqâra dédiées à Jean-Philippe Lauer (Orientalia Monspeliensia” 9), Montpellier 1997, pp. IX–XVIII.

8 S. Jenkins, “Profile: Zahi Hawass, The Keeper of the Pyramids,” Discovering Archaeology (July/August) 1999, pp. 26–31.

9 K. Myśliwiec, “Five Wives,” p. 65 (paragraph Anonymous Experts).

10 N. Gaber, The Tomb of Ia-Maat in Saqqara, University of Warsaw, Institute of Archaeology, Department of Archaeology of Egypt and Nubia, Warsaw 2013.

11 K. Myśliwiec, “Archaeology Meeting Geophysics on Polish Excavations in Egypt,” Studia Quaternaria 30/2 (2013), pp. 45–59.

12 K. Myśliwiec, T. Herbich with a contribution by A. Niwiński, “Polish Research at Saqqara in 1987, Études et Travaux 17 (1995), pp. 178–203.

13 Myśliwiec, Herbich, Niwiński, “Polish Research,” pp. 186–195.

14 See the fragment of the western part of the Djoser pyramid’s risalit wall, discovered by the Polish archaeological mission in 2001 at the eastern edge of the Polish concession: K. Myśliwiec, “West Saqqara. Excavations, 2001,” Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 13 (2002): Reports 2001, pp. 135–142.

15 Myśliwiec, Herbich, Niwiński, “Polish Research,” pp. 186–189; K. Myśliwiec, New Faces of Sakkara. Recent Discoveries in West Sakkara, Tuchów 1999 (also published in Polish as Nowe oblicza Sakkary. Rewelacyjne odkrycia polskich archeologów w Egipcie, Tuchów 1998), fig. 13; cf. F.D. Friedman (ed.), Gifts of the Nile. Ancient Egyptian Faience, New York 1998, pp. 66, 72–73, 180–181.

16 Myśliwiec, Herbich, Niwiński, “Polish Research,” pp. 195–201.

17 Myśliwiec, Herbich, Niwiński, “Polish Research,” pp. 200–201, fig. 24–26.

18 Myśliwiec, Herbich, Niwiński, “Polish Research,” pp. 202–203, fig. 27.

19 C. Wietheger, Das Jeremias-Kloster zu Saqqara unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Inschriften, in: Arbeiten zum spätantiken und koptischen Ägypten, Michigan 1992.

20 See fn. 27 in chapter 1.

21 J. Mathieson, unpublished report from the last campaign of the geophysical work conducted by the Scottish archaeological mission in Saqqara, which the author made available to the director of the Polish excavations at Djoser pyramid.

22 Mathieson, unpublished report.

23 N. Gaber, The Tomb, pp. 13, 15, 50 (fig. 1).

24 K. Myśliwiec, New Faces of Saqqara, fig. 17 and 22; K. Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb of Merefnebef (Saqqara I), Warsaw 2004, pls. VI, XXVI a, d, f, XXVII a–d, XXVIII a–b, XXIX a.

25 Myśliwiec, New Faces of Saqqara, figs. 4, 11, 15, 18.

26 Myśliwiec, New Faces of Saqqara, figs. 4, 5, 6, 7.

27 Myśliwiec, New Faces of Saqqara, fig. 8.

28 Myśliwiec, New Faces of Saqqara, figs. 9, 10.

29 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pl. XXVIII c; S. Ikram, “Faunal Remains. Preliminary Report,” Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 10 (1999): Reports 1998, p. 106.

30 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pl. XXV g and XXVI a–d.

31 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pl. XXV b, e, f, XXVII b, d, XXVIII a, d; Myśliwiec, New Faces of Saqqara, fig. 16, 18, 23, 24 a–b, 25 b, 26.

32 Das Museum für altägyptische Kunst in Luxor (Katalog), Mainz 1981, Abb. 2 (opposite the title page).

33 Sh. El-Hakim, Songs to the Morning Horizon. Jacasseries du Babouin, Paris 2011.