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In the Shadow of Djoser’s Pyramid

Research of Polish Archaeologists in Saqqara


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 7. Cult of the dead

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Chapter 7. Cult of the dead

Abstract: Funeral ceremonies. A posthumous cult. Ritual pottery as the source of historical information. Who consumed the offerings from the offering table? White is sacred. Who is afraid of the dead?

Keywords: offerings, offering list, procession, burning, red pots, beer jars.

The underground part of a tomb, encompassing the burial chamber and shaft leading to it from the surface of the mastaba, was the ‘home’ of the dead in the afterworld. Theoretically, no living person had the right to disrupt his peace. However, as we have already seen, theory had little in common with practice as most of the funerary chambers were robbed shortly after the funeral. The temptation was too strong, since the coffin and its surroundings were equipped with a large number of various items needed by the deceased for his life in the land of eternity. These included objects made from gold or silver, which were the most attractive items for any unwanted visitors. To us, it sometimes seems that the looters were exceptionally knowledgeable about the underground parts of the mastabas, as they did not remove the entire fill from the shaft, but – at least in the lower parts of the larger shafts – drilled a vertical tunnel right next to the wall that ended at the burial chamber at the bottom.1 Let us not, however, overestimate their knowledge. The location of the burial shafts in the middle of the northern part of the mastabas, and in many cases even the content of the burial chambers must have been an open secret, even if for the simple reason that an important part of the funerary ceremonies took place on the roof of the mastaba near the open shaft into which various offerings were thrown.2 The ceremony was also attended by offering bearers and priests, and thus a group of people whose discretion was by no means guaranteed.

Many of the shafts bear traces of being reused when the next member of the family passed away. At that time, the shaft was deepened and adapted to the new burial. This involved either a second burial chamber or simply a hollow of a size just large enough to place a coffin or a body wrapped in a shroud.3 We do not have any proof that the eternal peace of the first tomb ←219 | 220→owner was disrupted during the secondary burial. This had usually already been done earlier by thieves.

In turn, the aboveground part of the tomb was the place of the cult of the deceased. It included the mastaba with the cult chapel and courtyard, where some of the rituals were performed.4 Both during the funeral and later, people gathered here in order to venerate the inhabitant of the afterworld. To enter the interior of the chapel, one had to maintain a state of purity, which was achieved, for example, by following certain dietary rules. A long inscription sculpted into the rock above the entrance to the chapel warned against breaking these instructions.5 In the interior, the most important things were ←220 | 221→the ‘false door’ and the offering table situated in front. It was here that offerings were placed for the tomb owner’s spiritual element, referred to as akh by the Egyptians. Even though the essence of the akh is not today fully understood, it is certain that it was attributed with many supernatural, almost divine features, even though the deceased was not yet identified with any god during the Old Kingdom.6 Only the pharaoh was entitled to deification, about which the Pyramid Texts provide the most precise information. As already noted earlier on the example of Vizier Merefnebef’s tomb, the highest dignitaries dreamt of being similar to the dead ruler, which they expressed in a variety of ways in the decoration of their tombs. It seems that this was especially desired by the nouveau riche.7

The essence of the akh is a separate subject in the considerations of Egyptologists. The tomb owner’s relatives and acquaintances not only venerated him, but might also have felt fear of him. This is best attested by the letters to the deceased, written usually on clay vessels, especially bowls, most probably deposited in the place of his cult.8 It was expected that the omnipotent akh would help solve various problems of daily life, such as infertility or disputes over property. The akh could wreak vengeance if it decided that it was not awarded the veneration it was due or not given worthy offerings. Fear of revenge exacted by the deceased gave additional motivation to practise his cult.

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However, one would be mistaken to think that the deceased’s cult chapel was only an auditorium for idyllic scenes full of religious content. The preserved chapels of Old Kingdom dignitaries also bear witness to family feuds, expressed most pointedly in the reliefs and paintings decorating the chapel walls. This can especially be observed in the tombs from the Sixth Dynasty, though proof of resentment and conflicts have also been discovered in much earlier mastabas, even from the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, i.e. the period of the construction of the largest pyramids, when the social order was much more stable than later.9 The destruction of representations of reviled members of the family or re-carving of the accompanying inscriptions to present new content were common occurrences. The oldest son, who – according to Egyptian custom – would become the main heir, most frequently fell victim to the activities of iconoclasts. The younger male progeniture were incapable of reconciling with this succession, and the best way to express frustration was precisely the destruction of the older brother’s effigies (Figs. 5556). It can only be imagined what ‘generic’ scenes this evoked in real life. In all probability, important episodes in the conflict must have taken place in the cult chapel of the father who had passed away or right in front of it.

The geographic orientation and shape of the chapel were conditioned to a large extent by the location and topography of the necropolis. The latter is located on the western side of Djoser’s pyramid considered to be a holy place, while the subsequent terraces of its contemporaneous quarry, in which the necropolis was founded, are facing westwards. On one of the terraces, the two wealthiest tombs in the cemetery were constructed: the burial place of Merefnebef, the éminence grise, who at a critical moment in history was elevated to a senior official rank in the State, and the neighbouring structure, which was equally interesting and which we will discuss in the next chapter (Il. 5 and 22).10 The beautiful cult chapels of these two dignitaries from the beginnings of the Sixth Dynasty, hewn out in the rock, both had entrances from the west side. However, when the façade of Merefnebef’s chapel was blocked by a pile of bricks from the collapsed (perhaps intentionally) front wall of his mastaba, the family of the controversial nobleman did not decide ←222 | 223→to remove the rubble, even though this would have cost them at most one day of work. In order to not further annoy his enemies, a more modest solution was selected. A new chapel was added onto the opposite eastern wall of his mastaba, which had a place of cult monumental in size, but standing adjacent to a tiny courtyard surrounded by a very feeble mud-brick wall (Figs. 60 and 88).11

The next generations of courtiers buried in this necropolis until the end of the Old Kingdom, i.e. for almost two centuries, must have liked this new model of the chapel. It was much cheaper than the decorated chapels hewn into rock, and also had an eschatological advantage, as the deceased’s akh exited the tomb in an eastern direction, i.e. straight towards the holy complex of Djoser’s pyramid. This type of small cult chapel appears repeatedly in all the mastabas built after Merefnebef’s death.12

In the initial phase of the expansion of the necropolis, the mastabas were arranged in such a way that the space between them formed a network of small roads and paths. As it expanded, this plan was dropped. More elements were added onto the existing tombs, while new structures were erected on the ruins of older mastabas, limiting the free space and increasingly complicating the layout. As the brick walls of the mastabas, if they have even been preserved at all, are currently in a fragmentary state, establishing the original borders of the individual structures and attributing each shaft to a specific whole is quite a challenge for any Egyptologist.13 One requires abundant amounts of knowledge and experience to unravel this puzzle credibly. As already mentioned, this work was executed at our excavations by Dr Kamil Kuraszkiewicz, who not only integrated the scattered material and isolated the subsequent phases in the development of the necropolis but also attributed to particular structures the architectural fragments extracted from their original context and scattered across the entire area either by looters or by the streams that in the rainy period flowed rapidly down from the direction of the pyramid dominating over the entire landscape.

A precise study of the architecture of the fragmentarily preserved tomb structures enabled the isolation of six main phases in the development of the necropolis, and even associating them to the political, economic and social history of the Sixth Dynasty. These stages were then correlated with the four periods that it was possible to distinguish based on the exceptionally rich ←223 | 224→pottery assemblage discovered during our excavations.14 In the case of this material, difficulties resulted not only from the enormous number of vessels requiring analysis using scientific methods but also the mobility of pottery artefacts. They are very easily moved, which signifies that they are not always found in situ, but rather in a secondary deposit. However, in order to arrive at some historical conclusions based on this material, it is necessary to study them in detail within the context of the architecture and other findings. It is only then possible to determine their function and accurately establish their significance within the material culture of ancient Egypt. This extremely ambitious but exceptionally difficult task was undertaken by the mission’s ceramologist, Dr Teodozja Rzeuska.15 It should be emphasised that her in-depth and comprehensive Egyptological knowledge aided her strongly in selecting the appropriate method. The results of her research exceeded all expectations, not only ours, the members of the mission, but also those of the entire archaeological world. To put it shortly, she proved that appropriately studied Egyptian pottery can be a historical source of the highest quality, parallel to hieroglyphic inscriptions and the scenes depicted on the walls of Egyptian tombs and temples. At this point, however, we are most interested in the significance her studies have for the reconstruction of rituals practiced within the framework of the cult of the deceased.

In order to properly understand the significance of these discoveries, one should first understand the general state of research into Egyptian pottery. Scientific studies of clay vessels, which in terms of their number are the best represented material found at all excavations in Egypt, belong among the youngest fields of Egyptology. In its beginnings, i.e. in the 1970s, ceramology paved its way towards being treated seriously with some difficulty within an academic field considered primarily to be a philological one; today, ceramology constitutes a separate branch of Egyptology, to which philologists and historians often refer in search for material confirmation of their hypothesis, as do archaeologists – even more frequently, expecting pottery to be the material capable of determining the dating of the studied object or archaeological layer. Close cooperation between an archaeologist and a ceramologist is the basis for the success of excavations.

The fact that Egyptology is lagging behind in this area is all the more striking if we compare the archaeology of Egypt with that of ancient Greece or Rome. While classical archaeologists had already distinguished the ←224 | 225→characteristic types of pottery, production centres and techniques, ways in which they were decorated and distributed, and – finally – established the dating of the particular types, making ceramology not only an important tool for archaeologists but also a separate field of archaeology, Egyptologists were preoccupied with some sort of amateurish collectorship, recording and publishing only the most beautiful and best-preserved vessels, without making even the slightest effort to establish their cultural significance. It was not until the work of three researchers from three different academic traditions, Helen Jacquet-Gordon (Egyptologist-archaeologist), Janine Bourriau (Egyptologist-museologist) and Dorothea Arnold (classical archaeologist), that this shameful tradition was abandoned.16 Each of these researchers proved that pottery, if studied using a multi-disciplinary approach and set in the context of other findings, can explain many other issues about which written documents are silent and iconographic sources very fragmentary.

Nonetheless, the enormity of the pottery material found during almost every excavation makes it quite a feat to provide precise descriptions of the individual vessel types, determine their production technique and the date of their making. The majority of ceramologists working at excavations simply do not have the time to pose broader cultural studies questions, i.e. ones which go beyond the scope listed above. In the case of every sherd found, and there are sometimes hundreds of thousands of them, one has to answer a multitude of questions: to which group should it be qualified; should it be kept in hopes that further fragments making up an entire vessel will be found or rather thrown away after its existence has been noted; how should the statistics of the individual types of clay and decorations be made; should the sherds sullied by clay be washed or cleaned without using water, so as not to wash off any potential decoration painted on after it was fired; which fragments should be submitted for costly technological testing and what can be expected from such tests, etc.? Few ceramologists have enough patience to cap their work by publishing it.17 Many studies on the pottery from excavations are only in the form of catalogues attempting to date the individual types. Even this is enough to win the gratitude of the archaeologist, even if in many cases he or she treats the ceramologist instrumentally, as a medium for determining the approximate dating of the archaeological layers.

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Teodozja Rzeuska made an important step forward. While working on the catalogue of pottery vessels, she did not for a moment part with the question concerning their cultural function. She conducted the analysis of entire assemblages, especially so-called closed deposits, i.e. intact groups of objects preserved in their original context. There are few such deposits, but their cognitive value is enormous. She subjected representative types of vessels to various technological analyses, while also studying in great detail their content or its remains and, most importantly, she compared these data with the information contained in written and iconographic sources. The shortest way of referring to this method would be that it was a holistic approach.

The pottery linked to the cult of the dead can generally be divided into two groups: vessels used in various phases of the funerary ceremonies and ritual vessels connected to the later cult, which in some cases could have been upkept for many years. Before the funerary procession arrived at the mastaba, there were rituals attested in hieroglyphic texts from various époques. From the period of the Fourth to the Sixth Dynasties, scenes depicting the funerals have been preserved in at least eighteen tombs belonging to various noblemen. However, the most complete written source is the so-called Ramesseum E Papyrus (name derived from its find spot), containing a copy of the funeral liturgy. Many fragments of this valuable document remain unclear to this day. It is only natural that, over the course of 3000 years of the development of ancient Egyptian civilisation, these rituals evolved, individual episodes were added or disappeared, the function of the priests changed, etc. However, the basic scheme of the ceremony remained the same.

The body of the deceased was carried in a procession from his place of residence to the “pure place” (wabet in Egyptian).18 Preserved in the tombs of Mereruka, Ankhmahor and Idu (Old Kingdom), representations of these processions depict the family of the deceased and two female mourners, of which one, referred to as the “great mourner,” was associated with Goddess Isis weeping over the death of Osiris. Behind them marched “the bearer of god’s stamp” (hetemti netjer), the lector-priests (heryu habet) and embalmers (utyu).

After crossing over onto the “western side” (or the “western bank”), they would continue on to the “purification tent” (ibu en wab), where the body of the deceased was subjected to ritual cleansing. Due to the Egyptian climate, this ritual could not have lasted too long. Next, the procession moved on to the place called the “place of embalmment” (wabet net ut). There the body would remain the longest, until the grave had been prepared. This probably involved the appropriate equipping of the burial chamber, as the ←226 | 227→decorations in the cult chapels in many cases were never actually completed. It is also slightly anachronic in reference to the Old Kingdom to use the word ‘embalmment’ as the custom of mummifying the body was only in its beginning stages at that time.

From in front of the wabet, the procession with the body of the deceased marched in the direction of the grave, visiting holy places called Sais and Buto along the way, representing two important religious centres in Lower Egypt bearing these same names. However, this episode has not been attested for the period preceding the Fifth Dynasty. Here, the procession was welcomed by the ritualists referred to as muu, dressed in characteristic attire. One of the elements of the ceremony that occurred then was a march with papyrus stalks.

Until recently, the rites performed by the grave were the least studied part of the funeral ritual. Only three scenes are known from Old Kingdom tombs that depict ceremonies taking place at that spot.19 It was possible to fill this gap in our knowledge about the cult of the dead thanks to the Polish excavations in the necropolis on the western side of Djoser’s pyramid. Until not so long ago, Egyptologists believed that the gifts listed in the so-called offering lists, depicted on the walls of the cult chapel (Fig. 175), were deposited before the body was placed inside the grave. Archaeological records made it possible to state that the situation was in fact the exact opposite. This was shown by the analysis of the material from our excavations, primarily the pottery assemblages unearthed in burial chambers, by the blockage at the entrance to these chambers, and at the bottom of tomb shafts, as well as the ceramic deposits found inside the shafts – which later turned out to be most important element. Each of these spots was distinguished by specific content unattested in other parts of the tombs.

In the burial chamber, the deceased was accompanied by all the items needed for his or her life in the Netherworld: furniture, jewellery, cosmetic utensils (including mirrors and palettes for grinding paint), stone and metal vessels, wood and stone figurines, and – finally – pottery vessels.20 Many items were small in size as they were put there in place of the originals, which would not have fit in the chamber. Such miniatures, made from clay or stone, depicted, e.g. bread and other baked goods, meat, vessels to hold beverages, etc. (Fig. 82). They are referred to as ‘models’ in archaeological jargon. In reference to pottery vessels, we found six intact specimens near Vizier Merefnebef’s sarcophagus, on its eastern side.21 Two sealed jugs stood ←227 | 228→leaning against the wall of the sarcophagus, while two plates, one bowl and one mould for baking bread were found next to them (Il. 1920, Fig. 85). Each jug was sealed off with a clay stopper comprised of two parts: an inner egg-shaped part and a cylindrical cover reaching the shoulders of the vessel. Made from wet mud, the seal was supposed to close off the vessel’s opening tightly, but it was very brittle. Its presence at the spout attests that the vessel was found intact.

The content of the jugs turned out to be surprising. The characteristically-shaped container (Il. 19), meant to hold beer, was filled with… dry clay, which doubtless must have been poured inside in liquid form. In turn, inside the bread mould, we found charcoal cubes. The contents of the vessels were thus symbolic. Even though similar pottery sets, sometimes in fragmentary state, were also found in the burial chambers of other mastabas, the pottery from the vizier’s burial set is unrivalled in terms of the quality of its execution. These vessels, made from a better, very homogeneous type of clay, have a surface overlaid with a clay coating, meticulously polished. In addition, they are excellently fired. The difference between these and the vessels from the funerary chambers of other noblemen buried at this necropolis confirm the intense social and property-based diversification of the Old Kingdom civil servant class. It is worth emphasising that among the vessels found in the context of a coffin or sarcophagus, vessels used in the cult are lacking, for which various kinds of jugs would be typical (with such names as hes, kebeh or nemset), while frequently various specimens of kitchen ware are encountered (such as bread moulds), as are storage vessels (simple jugs, mainly for beer) and luxury pottery with red slip on their surface.

Researchers have for a long time puzzled over the symbolic contents of these vessels, primarily the clay mass filling the jugs. Until recently, some believed that this was a remnant of rain, which had changed the clay into a liquid mass that secondarily adapted to the shape of the containers. What then would the clay stopper preserved on the intact vessels have been for? Some considered the vessels to have been containers for mortar, but there are no traces of such material inside. Others thought that this was an intentional filling of the container, e.g. in order to increase the weight of the vessel. However, it is difficult to establish the reason behind such a procedure.22 Since the predynastic period, such jugs have been present in burials and they were doubtless deposited there on purpose. Only one interpretation seems logical: clay replaced beer in the funerary cult, which is why jugs meant for this beverage were filled with it. No other material, such as sand, was ever used for this purpose.

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The bread moulds containing charcoal crumbs have so far not had any analogies. They probably represent pastry, as we know dough was only poured inside after the moulds had been heated. Thus, this involved making sure the deceased was permanently prepared for the baking of bread, the basis of his existence, like other models guaranteed him his daily meal, clothing, cosmetics and adornments. Another piece of evidence presenting concern for facilitating his consumption needs is the fact that the vessels were placed on the eastern side of the coffin, right next to the head of the deceased, so that, when awoken in the morning by the rays of the rising sun, he had a meal lying opposite his mouth. This can be considered to have been one of the signs of the increasing role of solar imagery, and thus of the eschatological orientation towards the sun, beginning with the Fifth Dynasty. Another signum temporis is the gradual impoverishment of the funerary equipment, and especially of the number of vessels in the burial chambers of Sixth-Dynasty noblemen. The difference between the burials of the richer and the poorer also becomes more drastic, visible both in the architecture and in the funerary equipment.23

After placing the body in the coffin and supplying it with all the goods needed in life, the funerary chamber was supposed to be closed off with stones or bricks. Egyptian texts are silent about this part of the funeral. In turn, the archaeological material indicates clearly that this was a moment of huge significance both for the deceased and for the living, for whom this was the moment when they bade him farewell forever. The sealing of the chamber was linked with a ritual act attested by various objects found by archaeologists at the bottom of burial shafts, opposite the blocked entrance and in the blockage itself. If the grave had never been robbed, the blockade is sealed with plaster and additionally covered with a white coating.24 Numerous traces of this paint have been preserved next to the entrance to chambers also in tombs which had since fallen prey to looters. Vessels, sherds or baskets with remains of mortar or white paint are also frequently found near the blockade or inside the shaft, slightly above the entrance to the chamber. The mortar was also used to seal the sarcophagus and vessels deposited earlier inside the burial chamber, as well as to paint the walls of the shaft.

In addition, the finds in the ritual deposit at the bottom of the shaft also frequently include the bones of animal offerings, ceramic vessels (especially miniature ones), incense burners with traces of fire on them, flint tools and shells. Similar items are sometimes stuck in the blockade. However, few traces of sealing the burial chambers have been left behind at the necropolis we ←229 | 230→excavated. Only in one case did we find the remains of an animal offering at the bottom of the burial shaft. This was the skull of a bull with its bones preserved in its anatomical layout, which proves that the burial was never compromised.25 In other deposits, the bones of the animals were scattered; thus, it was difficult to establish whether they originated from the interior of the burial chamber or whether they were the remains of the ritual of sealing the entrance. Even though it was very important, this rite was necessarily an intimate event, as at best only two people could fit at the bottom of the burial shaft, while retaining enough freedom of movement needed to perform the cult activities.

The vessels found at the bottom of burial shafts primarily include beer jars and incense burners. Were they placed there intentionally? The white paint on their surface is a sign of the sacred, as this colour, especially in the ritual context, signified purity, dignity, stateliness. It appears everywhere where the two realms, that of the living and that of the dead, meet. The ‘false doors’ were also in many cases secondarily coated with white paint, while the sunken relief of the hieroglyphs was originally full of more vibrant colours, e.g. green and red. The spirit of the deceased also passed into the realm of the living through such doors, in order to consume the offerings placed on the altar by the priests. The custom of painting various ritual objects white spread especially during the Sixth Dynasty. This colour was also applied to emphasise the sacral character of the ceramic vessels standing in front of the ‘false doors,’ used repeatedly during the delivery of the offerings.

The walls of the burial chambers and shafts were also white-coated. In the narrow entrance to Merefnebef’s cult chapel, we unearthed a few layers of mud flooring with a white surface, forming a thick floor pugging.26 The plaster coating also covered the lower register of the reliefs on the lateral walls of this entrance.27 Only after it had been delicately removed by the restorers were we able to see the richly-detailed, once polychrome scenes, which depicted sailing boats carrying a funeral procession.

Incense burners with traces of fire on them, found in the same context, bring to mind a scene known from the Pyramid Texts: the path to the heavens was guarded by flames.28 It cannot be excluded that their magical power was supposed to purify and sanctify this special place, fortifying and protecting it.

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It is also worth noting the animal offerings were found here along with clay vessels. Their presence has been attested at various Old Kingdom necropoles, with bones belonging to calves and bulls. They differ fundamentally from the animal deposits found in burial chambers, belonging to the ‘menu’ of the deceased in the Netherworld. It is surprising that only the heads and legs of the calves were deposited at the bottom of the burial shafts, without other parts of the bodies.29 Therefore, the meat had a purely symbolic significance, it was not part of the items meant for consumption. The bones are sometimes dismembered and even embedded into the blocks of the entrance, while the head was deposited with the horns pointing downwards. Such an arrangement suggests the apotropaic nature of the offering. Its aim was to magically secure the entrance from all evil powers.

The ceremonies that took place in front of the entrance to the burial chamber after it was closed off seem to have evolved during the Old Kingdom. We have evidence that already during the Fourth Dynasty, i.e. the period during which the largest pyramids were constructed, the entrance to the chamber was painted white, while miniature stone and clay vessels were placed in front of it. The placing of animal offerings and burning incense only became widespread in the second half of the Old Kingdom, i.e. during the Fifth and the Sixth Dynasties.30

Nonetheless, the meticulous exploration of the burial shafts brought the least expected results. It turned out that above the burial chambers, the shafts were filled after the funeral not only with rock chips that had been formed during the hewing of the chamber but also with extensive deposits containing enormous amounts of pottery.31 What kind of pottery was this? Who had thrown it into the shaft and when? In order to fit it in, sometimes special niches were carved into the rock walls of the shafts. This in itself gives rise to the suspicion that in this case we are not dealing with pottery that was accidentally thrown into the shaft by uninvited guests, e.g. looters during the rushed, secondary filling of the gap left after they ‘had finished their work.’ This observation is confirmed by the fact that the mysterious pottery deposits in the larger-sized shafts are lying in the part of the fill that is intact, i.e. in the pile of stone chips, and not in the aeolian sand which the looters used to fill the channel they had hollowed out. This was, for example, the case in one of the first tomb complexes we unearthed, right next to Vizier Merefnebef’s tomb. Judging by its size and architecture, this was the burial place of one of ←231 | 232→the high officials in the early phase of the Sixth Dynasty. Unfortunately, none of the inscriptions enabling the identification of the tomb owner has been preserved. In turn, in the intact part of this shaft, there was a deposit containing, among other things, at least 29 beer jars (as indicated by the number of diagnostic vessel sherds), 129 bread moulds (Fig. 85), 14 trays painted white with profiled edges, and – finally - fragments of some luxury bowls of the Meidum type, referred to as such by archaeologists based on the place from which the first identified specimens originate.32 Some of the jugs were filled with ash, and one had a surface covered with white paint. The majority of the vessels were preserved intact, which is especially surprising in the case of the unfired, very fragile bread moulds, which constitute the most abundant group. Two types of moulds are represented here, referred to by the Egyptians as bedja (for baking bread with a conical shape) and aperet (for flat pastries).

This set of vessels already clearly indicates that this pottery was supposed to satisfy the two basic culinary needs of the deceased, listed repeatedly in the inscriptions on the walls of the tomb chapel: bread and beer. The formula “offering of a thousand of breads and a thousand of beer” accompanies almost every scene depicting the tomb owner at the offering table. On the table itself, there is always a representation of half-loaves of flat bread, sometimes so enlarged and stylised that they are more reminiscent of tall feathers or stalks than baked goods.33

However, the distinguishing feature of these deposits is primarily the presence of beer jars filled with ash and charcoal lumps (particles). They are also frequently sealed with clay overlays. They have been found at various necropoles, and have turned out to be the key to understanding an exceptionally important ritual in the cult of the deceased. The Polish ceramologist noticed that ash was frequently stuck to the bottom surface of the stoppers, which means that the latter were formed while wet, when the vessel had already been filled.34 On the reverse side of some jugs, i.e. on the top of the conical bottom, she noticed holes made using a finger or a stick before the vessels were fired. It was excluded that these vessels could have served as containers for liquids at any point. It was probably production waste that the potter put aside so that they could later serve sepulchral purposes. Our friend decided to subject the contents of the ash to precise testing. As macroscopically it was possible to state the presence of small particles of various ←232 | 233→burnt plants (e.g. stems, pedicels, seeds, kernels), she brought over an experienced paleobotanist from the University in Szczecin to Saqqara.

After weeks spent at the microscope, Dr Jarosław Zieliński revealed to us a whole world of Egyptian flora (Il. 18a-b).35 The ash from the beer jars was filtered through a strainer with a mesh aperture diameter of 0.5–3.0 mm. All of the vessels among the seven tested contained wheat, while some had pearl barley – usually in fragmented form. But only five vessels contained the remnants of thorns and chaff, predominantly crambled, among the wheat particles. In addition, the remains of oats, African millet, wheatgrass, lupin and other weeds growing among the cereal grass and difficult to eradicate were also attested. The remains of fruit were also isolated out, such as figs, grapes, as well as spices and edible plants, including celery, black cumin, balanos, marigold, poppy rattle, chicory, flax, camomile, sweet reseda and safflower. In the case of celery and black cumin, these are the oldest known testimonies of their existence.36

The remains of burnt wood (acacia and palm trees) were found in three jugs, while in four others – the leftovers of burnt stems. This suggests that there were two types of burnt piles: in one wood was burnt, in the other – straw (Il. 18a–b). The pieces of burnt wood were accompanied by a lot of seeds from weeds and wild wheat, but there were no thorns or chaff among them. The pile here only contained threshed grain. In the context of the burnt straw, there are large amounts of whole grain. The absence of wood in this case is understandable. While the straw pile could only have been burnt in late spring and early summer (March – June), when the grains were still growing in the field and – of course – could not have been threshed; in turn, the wood piles can only be dated to winter, when the grain had already been sieved. Based on the analysis of the ash in the beer jars, it is thus possible to establish with high probability the season during which the deceased had been buried. What a shame this does not enable determining the date of the burial!

Thanks to the conducted botanical analysis, it was possible to reconstruct the composition of each of the two types of piles.37 First, fruit was placed on a tray or bowl, especially figs and grapes, after which flowers and grains were added, as well as probably fragments of animal offerings. The ready pile was placed on a fire, and when it changed into ash, jars were filled with the substance, which included charred plant remains and the sherds of the pottery used in the burning. The full jars were then sealed. This composition ←233 | 234→ shows very far-reaching analogies with the representations of offerings lying on the offering tables in the scenes decorating the walls of tomb chapels, even though the images never show any fires. The plates and bowls found along with the jugs in burial shafts frequently have surfaces covered with soot. These are surely the vessels on which the plant and animal offerings were burned.

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Where did the burning of these offering piles take place? We discovered numerous traces of ritual hearths in the courtyard in front of Vizier Merefnebef’s cult chapel.38 They are in the form of rings burnt red into the surface of the flooring, i.e. multiple layers of mud covering the rock, levelled in this pot. The inside of each of the hearths is black. The size of the rings, i.e. ten to twenty centimetres in diameter, corresponds approximately to the size of the ceramic stands on the tops of which offerings were placed. The motif of such offerings is depicted in numerous scenes carved onto the walls of the tomb chapels. In this context, the analysis of subsequent layers of the flooring is especially diagnostic. Each of them contains countless numbers of tiny animal bone fragments, doubtless the remains from the offering rituals that took place in the courtyard in front of the chapel. One surprising aspect, even for such an experienced paleozoologist as the one cooperating with our mission, i.e. Professor Salima Ikram, was the presence of pig bones in this context.39 Of course, this abundance of game animals attests that not only funerary rituals but also the posthumous cult of the dead were practiced, sometimes over the course of many years. We should not be surprised by this amount upon reading the so-called ideal biography of the tomb owner, carved above the entrance to his cult chapel. Offerings should be given on the occasion of all the most important special days, preferably every day. The authors of such instructions were, of course, the priests; they had to somehow make a living. In turn, no traces of burning offering piles have been found inside the chapel.

The identification of the places where the burning of offerings was conducted enabled a better understanding of some fragments of Egyptian texts concerning the funerary liturgy. They have been preserved in the above-mentioned Ramesseum E Papyrus and in the unique scene depicting a funerary ritual, found in Giza in the tomb of a nobleman called Debeheni (Il. 21). In these texts, the word djadjat seems to signify something that is ‘in front’ and which can be considered as the head or front side of an object. From the times of the New Kingdom on, i.e. almost 1000 years later, this expression referred to the courtyard or the space in front of the temple, while in the Ptolemaic period, i.e. 2000 years later, it was used as the name of one of the buildings within the temple.40 Until recently, its significance in the context of Old Kingdom tombs remained a mystery. If we assume that it referred to the courtyard in front of the tomb chapel where offerings were burned, the inscriptions accompanying the funeral scenes in Debeheni’s tomb become clear. One of them refers to the ceremony of “placing offerings in the courtyard,” while another to that of “standing up, mourning and walking around the courtyard.” Djadjat was thus a courtyard in front of the mastaba, more precisely – in front of the cult chapel. The entrance to this chapel is visible in the relief in Debeheni’s tomb, which also depicts people walking around the courtyard. The lector-priest reads the liturgical text, after which – as suggested by the text preserved on papyrus – there are some unspecified activities linked to burning fire. At the moment, based on archaeological material, we know that these activities involved the burning of an offering pile.

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The procession of the offering bearers is represented in Debeheni’s tomb as a sequence of people ascending on a platform to the top of the mastaba. They are carrying birds, cattle haunches, beer jars, loaves of bread and pastries. Only one action could have taken place on the roof of the mastaba (Il. 21): throwing the offerings into the burial shaft, which until that moment was only partially filled. It was these gifts, in majority pottery vessels filled with ash, that form the deposits unearthed nowadays by archaeologists in intact shafts. Thus, this ritual was part of the funerary ceremonies. What religious concepts accompanied these actions? Perhaps the necessity to ensure the existence of each of the elements that made up the nature of the deceased, i.e. his body, his soul and his name. Everything indicates that the offerings were thrown into the shaft from the roof of the mastaba to satisfy the akh, or the spiritual element, while the offerings placed earlier in the funerary chamber were meant for the body.41 Therefore, ceremonial burning of the offering piles during the funeral belongs to the ritual of the ‘transformation [of the deceased] into akh.’ The food was burnt to avoid its ‘redistribution’ by the priests and labourers employed at the cemetery. While the fruit and other plants given as offerings might have been considered to be food elements, the grains had a purely symbolic meaning as they were never eaten in raw form. They might have symbolised rebirth, as every year cereal would grow from the grains. This symbol was so closely linked with the resurrected Osiris, the god of the dead, that in later times a type of pot was produced in ←239 | 240→the shape of the mummified deity, filled with earth and grains from which new plants would grow.

The ‘transformation into akh’ ritual was one of the most important elements of the funeral, as it carried the deceased onto a higher level of existence, referred to as akhet. This rite was first attested in the tomb of Metjen from the beginnings of the Fourth Dynasty, in scenes depicting the standing figure of the deceased with two uti embalmer-priests in front of him.42 The inscription accompanying the scenes states that they are conducting the rituals of the ‘opening of the mouth,’ ‘transformation into akh’ and the ‘offering ritual.’ An identical sequence of rites has been attested in Saqqara with an inscription on the ‘false door’ in the tomb of a nobleman called Neferseshemre. His mastaba is located not far from the pyramid of Teti, the first ruler of the Sixth Dynasty. Among other things, we can read in this inscription that “the invocation offering consisting of oxen, bread and beer on the top of the mastaba after passing the lake, after he had been transformed into akh byte lector-priest.” It is difficult to have a better punchline for the interpretation of the deposits in burial shafts.

Some researchers believe that both the offerings at the blockade to the burial chamber and the offerings placed in the shaft were supposed to enable the deceased, and especially his akh, to leave his grave and even to exact revenge on the living. Could fear have had some influence on the quantity and quality of the offerings to the same extent as nowadays the most expensive, most richly decorated tombs tend to be an expression of the desire for expiation towards the deceased, usually much delayed, after a life marked with hatred? The described vizier’s tomb, as well as the burial place of his posthumous neighbour that we will soon visit, do not make it possible to exclude such conclusions.

It is worth drawing attention to the fact that aside from the pottery vessels filled with ash in the deposits in the burial shafts, other items with rich symbolism have been found. These include, e.g. beer jars filled with a red powder mixed with pottery sherds, particles of burnt plants, small pieces of charcoal and overburned bones.43 These are the remains of animal offerings, with the admixture of sand and hematite, which were added after the animal had been burned in order to put out the fire. It is difficult to exclude that the red colour of the hematite could have been associated with Seth, similarly as the name of this controversial god was sometimes written down with red paint contrasting with the black colour of the remaining parts of the texts ←240 | 241→immortalised on the papyri. Could this symbol have also had some apotropaic significance? At the necropolis we excavated, only one shaft contained the remains of burnt animals used as offerings, and the only analogy was found near the Old Kingdom mastabas in Giza.

Colour symbolism is also attributed to the stones whose surfaces were covered with green paint. They could have served to grind the pigments. Some of them bear the image of an eye. This brings to mind the green eye paint called wadju, present among the items included in the offering lists on the walls of tomb chambers.44 Green was the colour of life, fertility and rebirth. Similar symbolism should be linked to the palettes for grinding paint, green or black, found in analogical contexts.

To sum up, it is possible to reconstruct a sequence of rituals that took place in the final phase of the funeral, at the tomb of the deceased nobleman. Until recently, it was assumed that the ceremony began with the bringing of the items enumerated with mathematical precision in the offering lists carved into the walls of the cult chapel. Along with the coffin containing the body of the deceased, these offerings would have been brought into the burial chamber, after which protective rituals were to ensue. The deposits from the shafts disproved this theory. It was in fact the exact opposite. First, the body of the deceased was carried into the funerary chamber, where a sarcophagus or coffin was awaiting. The entrance to the chamber was blocked and only later did the ‘offering ritual’ take place. The victuals that had been burned on the piles, turned into ash and placed inside the jars were thrown into the shaft whose bottom part had been filled earlier. Such a sequence of events could be reconstructed only on the basis of the archaeological material, as none of the representations of the funeral on the tomb walls shows the entire ceremony. They show only its part or an impressionistic vision of the whole event. As already mentioned, the most detailed image is the one preserved in the tomb of a nobleman called Debeheni. The bottom registers of this scene depict an offering ritual from the final phase of the funerary ceremonies. We can see four kneeling uti priests bearing gifts: the two first ones are holding small juglets, the third – a pastry and a small vessel called a nu in Egyptian, while the fourth – only a nu vessel. The fifth priest is standing, holding a kebeh vessel in his hand. They are accompanied by an inscription which spells the message out clearly: “Feeding the akh by the embalmer-priest.” In this scene’s next register, offering animals have been depicted just above the representation of a ramp, across which the offering bearers ascend to the top of the mastaba. Such a sequence of offerings indicates that the ash-filled jars were thrown into the shaft not for the deceased but for his akh.

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Until recently, a fascinating mystery for the archaeologists excavating the necropolis of ancient Memphis involved the small shafts without a burial chamber, not containing any burials, but integrated into the mastaba, usually to the southern side of the burial shaft. The first such miniature shaft was uncovered in Vizier Merefnebef’s tomb, precisely in the south-eastern corner of his mastaba.45 It was barely one metre deep, while this nobleman’s burial shaft was over 14.5 metres deep. We were surprised not only by its size and simple shape but also by its intact contents. In the compact mass of rock debris, there was a deposit of broken pottery vessels with an exceptionally elaborate texture. In total, 36 bowls and plates of various types were found there. Our attention was especially caught by one ‘Meidum’-type bowl, which stood out due to its beautiful form, homogenous and well-fired clay, and red coat on its surface. All the vessels had a surface painted red, in many cases polished (Fig. 84). The filling of the shaft, in which there was absolutely no aeolian sand, i.e. a sure sign of the activities of intruders, suggested that the depositing of the vessels occurred during a single occasion and was linked to the funerary ceremonies.46

Both the five other shafts of this type discovered by us at the necropolis in Saqqara and the many shafts without burial chambers known from earlier excavations had common features. All of them remained untouched by looters and had similar contents, with a predominance of broken vessels with a surface coated with red paint. The robbers must have known that such shafts did not contain any material that would be of interest to them. The homogeneous, always similar type of pottery forming the deposits in these shafts indicates conclusively that this was a specific ritual linked to the funerary ceremonies.

Until now, archaeologists have not paid an appropriate amount of attention to ‘underdeveloped’ elements of the tomb architecture. Many had thought that these were unfinished shafts, meant – perhaps – for members of the first tomb owner’s family. However, the lack of a burial chamber with the body of the deceased reduced the scientific value of this hypothesis to zero. No one wasted time on investigating what they contained. It was our ceramologist who took the trouble to do so, intrigued by the fact that these beautiful vessels were always broken. She put the sherds together and searched for analogies, including in written sources.

It turned out that in pharaonic Egypt there was a funerary ceremony that mainly involved the breaking of pots. It would be difficult to come up with a more naturalistic name than “breaking of red pots” (in Egyptian – shed ←242 | 243→desherut). This is how it was described in Egyptian texts.47 It appears on ‘lists of offerings’ on the walls of Old Kingdom tomb chapels, where the determinative (the hieroglyphic sign added at the end of a word to determine its meaning) of this term is the image of a fragmentary jug depicted in a reclining position. This is how one of the complementary acts in the ‘ritual of offerings’ is referred to. In the Pyramid Texts, but also in the Ramesseum E Papyrus, a ‘bearer of red pots’ – heryu-desherut – is attested.

Symptomatically enough, the pottery from such deposits consists almost exclusively of open forms, plates and bowls, i.e. tableware. They are accompanied in the shaft by pieces of fabric, boards (probably the leftovers of chests), the remains of organic substances, shells (used as cutlery?), flint tools, but also miniature beer containers in the form of juglets made from unfired clay. Given the fact that the sherds from such deposits constitute entire vessels, it should be concluded that they were smashed on the spot. These were doubtless vessels used during the funeral banquet by the grave. Due to their function, they transited into the sphere of the sacred, and as such could not be thrown away. By smashing them, their secondary usage was avoided. It also cannot be excluded, as some researchers believe, that they were smashed because they were red, and thus commonly associated with the god Seth, who was Osiris’s and Horus’s enemy. However, one explanation does not exclude the other. It is puzzling whether the ritual smashing of the vessels had an ecstatic load of an intensity similar to the rapture experienced in the fumes of divine tipple today, accompanying the smashing of a pile of clean crockery in Greek taverns as a tribute to the dancers’ skills. Be as it may, we can be sure that the funeral of a highborn Egyptian ended with a feast that belonged to the sphere of the sacred, which is best attested by the respect shown for the vessels used during the event.

The excavations of the Polish archaeological mission in Saqqara enabled determining that the small shafts without a burial chamber, containing red vessel sherds, had from the very beginning been planned to function as containers for the items used during the funerary ritual, as a result of which we gave them the name ‘ritual shafts.’ Aside from their eschatological function, especially important for the ancient Egyptians, the content of these deposits has enormous importance for archaeologists as they constitute intact ‘closed deposits,’ the dating of which determines the moment of the funeral better than any other pottery found in tombs. The materials deposited in the burial chambers and shafts were frequently mixed together by looters, while the ritual pottery in the tomb chapel and around it originates from various ←243 | 244→phases of the posthumous cult, which sometimes lasted for many years. Only the ‘ritual shafts’ contain vessels dating the death and funeral of the tomb owner. As a result, the study of this very pottery assemblage has special significance for dating the tomb.48

Determining the exact date of the Old Kingdom mastabas remains an open question to this day. Usually, stylistic criteria and information contained in the texts carved into the tomb walls are applied. Nonetheless, in both the first and the second case, it is easy to make a mistake. Egyptian art shows a special predilection for archaisms, sometimes even involving the copying of motifs developed by artists hundreds or even thousands of years earlier. These tendencies are especially marked in the late pharaonic epoch (the first millennium BC), when the art was patterned on the masterpieces of the Golden Age, as can be used to refer to the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, encompassing the third and the second millennia BC.49 However, the stylisation of the reliefs according to conventions from bygone years becomes much more emphasised in the second half of the Old Kingdom, especially during the Sixth Dynasty, when pharaonic Egypt slowly neared its first fall. Thus, determining the date of the tomb on the basis of the iconographic repertoire and the style of the reliefs requires a lot of caution.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions come to the rescue, especially those containing royal names. Nonetheless, here is yet another trap for the researcher. Some rulers enjoyed a posthumous cult, which lasted for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, with their names appearing in inscriptions much later than the periods during which they had reigned. As one such example may serve the names of so-called domains, or estates from which the victuals indispensable in the posthumous cult were derived, belonging to people from the highest ranks of society. A procession of figures personifying these estates were frequently depicted in the tombs of the highest dignitaries, and each of these figures was accompanied by an inscription containing the domain’s name. The majority of these names are constructed on the basis of royal names. It would seem there is nothing simpler: ‘the youngest’ chronologically name of a pharaoh designates the dating of the tomb. However, in practice it turned out that over time a certain scheme was formed in the naming of the domains, which with great delight was repeated for many decades. Therefore, the name of the ruler occupying the last place in a chronological series of royal cartouches written into the names of the estates can be treated only as a terminus post quem, or the bottom limit of the possible ←244 | 245→dating, while it has no significance in determining the absolute date. Most of the tombs from the Old Kingdom divide Egyptologists into proponents of various chronological attributions, depending on the criteria they have adopted as the most certain. Of course, such a fate was also not avoided by the tomb we had discovered belonging to Vizier Merefnebef.

As we already know, based on various criteria, we dated the construction and the initiation of decorating this mastaba to the final phase of the first ruler from the Sixth Dynasty, Teti, while the apogee of the tomb owner’s career fell during the short reign of the next ruler, the alleged usurper named Userkare, a person as suspect as he remains little known.50 Immediately after our publication was issued, two foreign researchers, specialists on the Old Kingdom, negated such a dating, basing exclusively on stylistic criteria. One decided that the representations personifying the domains, which had been preserved in the vizier’s chapel, had nothing in common with Sixth-Dynasty art. The tomb had to be earlier, while the name of the first ruler of this dynasty, occurring repeatedly in the names of the depicted domains, must – in his opinion – have been added later into the empty cartouches.51 Why the cartouches would have been left empty when the reliefs were being carved into the chapel walls remains unclear. Almost simultaneously, another Egyptologist, using different criteria, moved the dating of the construction of the tomb over 100 years in the opposite direction.52 He, in turn, had concluded that both the modest size and design of the tomb chapel and the shape of the ‘false doors’ at the chapel’s west wall would not have been suitable for the rank of a vizier during the early phase of the Sixth Dynasty. The tombs of other viziers from this period are much larger, while their ‘false doors’ are more developed. Similar ‘deprivation’ does not mark the tombs of viziers until the final years of this dynasty. However, this researcher did not notice that at the moment of carving the decoration of the chapel’s interior, the owner was not yet a vizier. The inscriptions sculpted on his ‘false doors’ present him as a middle-ranked courtier, perhaps linked to the royal harem, or at least a confidant of some of the ruler’s secrets. When he was unexpectedly promoted to the top of the hierarchy of officials, it was too late to change the shape of the tomb. He could at best exhibit his promotion in the inscriptions carved on the walls of the façade and the narrow entrance to the chapel, thus far undecorated, which he readily did. Admittedly, he began to frantically expand the tomb in front of the chapel façade, but never finished the work, because it seems he shared his benefactor’s fate.

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The dating of the construction of the vizier’s tomb we proposed is today accepted without question by the authors of the newest publications.53 This date was conclusively confirmed by ceramological studies, conducted in the archaeology of Saqqara with respect to this very period for the first time with such precision. They indicate that in the necropolis we excavated, this was one adjacent to the west to the precinct of the oldest pyramid in the world, this was one of the first tombs, if not the first. The neighbouring tomb, which turned out to be yet another archaeological sensation, was slightly later. I shall discuss it in the next chapter.

The ceramological studies at the discussed cemetery showed what an important source of archaeological and historical knowledge this abundant material can become if only it is appropriately investigated and documented, from the moment excavations begin. It is hard to imagine how much important information has eluded Egyptologists in previous centuries only because the pottery material at their excavations was completely disregarded. Thanks to our newest studies, it was possible to distinguish four phases in the development of pottery only during the Sixth Dynasty, thanks to which such the scholarly publication of this material has risen to become one of the most important tools of an archaeologist’s work at many excavations in Egypt. All the more so, as these phases were correlated to the six stages of the development of the necropolis distinguished on the basis of other criteria, primarily the architecture of the tombs, their stratigraphy and their contents.54

Let us nonetheless get back to the cult of the dead. After the funeral, the place designated for cult ceremonies was the tomb chapel and the courtyard in front of it, surrounded by a small wall, usually erected from mud brick. The rituals, mainly involving making offerings and the recitation of prayers by the priests of the funerary cult were focused in the spots adjacent to the ‘false door’ built into the western wall of the mastaba or simply carved into it. In order to ensure some sort of intimacy and integrity to the ceremonies, the altar containing the ‘doors,’ their frames and the offering table were as a rule not located opposite the entrance but rather slight to the side.

In tomb chapels that were rooms hewn out into the rock, the remains of ritual equipment have been preserved. The pottery found in this context is different from the one in the deposits made during the funeral.55 The vessels found in the direct neighbourhood of the offering place are characteristic as ←246 | 247→they are of the highest quality. They include stands, bowls, plates and variously shaped jugs (Figs. 8485). Made from well-worked and fired clay, they had red coating, sometimes also additionally polished. Some of them might have been used only once, while the placement for others in front of the ‘false doors’ was probably permanent. This second case doubtless applies to the stands and plates on which the offerings were deposited.

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The majority of the cult vessels from our excavations bear traces of a white coating on the outer and inner surface, sometimes even a few layers of paint. This contradicts widespread theories that the vessels with their surface painted white were supposed to have been an imitation of stone vessels.56 Were this the case, why would the white paint in many cases overlie a red slip? The white paint obviously has nothing in common with the original function of the vessel. It is a secondary element, raising the significance of the vessel to the level of being a holy item, just as in the case of the white paint on the surface of the chapel walls, floors and ‘false doors.’ This custom must have been of a purely sepulchral character, as thus far no traces of pottery painted white have been found in settlements. The date of the production of ritual pottery found inside the chapel is an important chronological indicator, as it informs us about how long the posthumous cult of its tomb owner lasted.

The vessels found abundantly outside the cult place, i.e. the chapel, have a completely different character than the ritual pottery painted white from the chapel interior. The other vessels are of much worse workmanship than the whitewashed ones, and they were most probably used only to bring offerings, after which they were put aside. They include beer jugs, clay corks, bread moulds, trays and miniature vessels.

However, it seems that despite the exceptionally practical approach characteristic for almost all the actions of the ancient Egyptians, the enormous mass of pottery used during the funeral and in the later cult of the dead consists of vessels produced especially for this purpose, and they were not used earlier in daily life. This is indicated by the number of unfired or badly-fired pots found in this context. Doubtless, the production of pottery exclusively for funerary purposes was developed to an industrial scale. Among this material, there are no imports from Upper Egypt, which additionally proves their local production. It can even be assumed that the pottery workshops were linked to the facilities called wabet, in which the body of the deceased was prepared for the funeral.57 All this confirms the huge significance attached to life in the Netherworld, in accordance with the belief that this would be eternal life. Based on a number of various security measures introduced, especially in the burial shaft, it can be assumed that the Egyptians were well aware of the threats lying in wait and that any potential fear of the deceased’s akh leaving the grave was not the only cause for concern that kept them awake at night.

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Who then were the inhabitants of Memphis who were so meticulously prepared for eternal life? Thanks to various hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls of two well-preserved tomb chapels, as well as on a few ‘false doors’ and fragments of their stone frame, and finally on small moveable items (e.g. small ritual basins) also made from stone, it was possible to learn the names and titles of 58 individuals.58 At least 20 of them were definitely buried in the part of the cemetery we have unearthed so far. Further excavations will doubtless enable the identification of the place of eternal rest of other noblemen and members of their families. A few names are attested here for the first time in Egyptian prosopography. These include such names as Ikhti (female), Idu-iker (male), Pedenu (male), Fafa (male) and Temi (male). In total, there are 41 male names and 18 female ones. Only two women’s graves have been identified. Most women were probably buried in the tombs belonging to their husbands, in which new tomb shafts, chambers or just niches were added on.

Getting to know the titulature of the tomb owners is of special significance for characterising the social group frequently buried during the Sixth Dynasty on the western side of Djoser’s pyramid. Some titles appear repeatedly, and these are the most symptomatic. The most frequently used (seven ←249 | 250→times) is a title that in Egyptian is pronounced khenti-esh, the significance of which, not yet fully determined, has in recent years been the subject of heated academic discussions.59 It probably refers to someone like the administrator or leaseholder of royal estates,60 but its rising popularity in periods of social unrest during the reign of the first Sixth-Dynasty rulers has led some researchers to the conclusion that the bearers of this title must have been involved in issues of security, or perhaps they might have even been something like guardians of the public order.61 Other titles held by the men buried here,62 such as “inspector of the Great House” (attested five times); “privy to the secrets [among others, of the “House of the Morning]” – four individuals; “under-supervisor of the Great House,” “overseer of linen,” “district official,” “administrator of the Estate,” “Majordomo of the King’s house” (attested twice), show the middle level of the court administration, éminences grises with their eyes locked on the majesty of the king, probably also not lacking in some talent for scheming. Only one was able to rise above his station in life and immediately make his way to the top of the court official hierarchy. By what means? In all probability, by means not much ←250 | 251→different from today’s pathways leading to swift and shocking political careers.

The presence of women among the personages honoured by a burial near Djoser’s pyramid beckons attention. They frequently bear the title of “priestess of [the goddess] Hathor,” attested six times, and “acquaintance of the king,” which we noted to have appeared seven times.63 As Hathor priestesses were sometimes also referred to by using the epithet “the king’s only adornment,” some Egyptologists suggest that the function of these ladies at the pharaoh’s court might not have been purely religious.64 Nonetheless, given the respect they were shown by having their own burial, it seems that this title refers rather to their aristocratic origins, sometimes even kinship or another relationship with the ruler, rather than their lifestyle. Among the ‘false doors’ from the excavated necropolis, there are three limestone stelae of this type dedicated to women bearing the names Kheti, Khekeret and Djesti.65 On the door jambs, the deceased is depicted as a slim figure in a long robe with suspenders, sniffing a lotus flower. As they had their own cult places, they must also have had individual burials. It was possible to identify the grave of one of them, Khekeret; it did not differ at all from the mastabas of men buried at this same necropolis. This and other evidence of the emancipation of women during the Old Kingdom do not surprise us in the least. A woman of noble birth could become a vizier and even come to rule over the country, especially towards the end of the dynasty, when the male progeniture ceased to ensure the continuity of power. It is a shame that these ideas always came too late.

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1 T. I. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom. Funerary Pottery and Burial Customs (Saqqara II), Warsaw 2006, p. 429.

2 Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, pp. 485–492.

3 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, pp. 280–283 (phases FE–FG).

4 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, pp. 232–240.

5 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 70–74; K. Myśliwiec, K. O. Kuraszkiewicz, The Funerary Complex of Nyankhnefertem (Saqqara IV), Warsaw 2010, pp. 92–94, 134–136.

6 E. Otto, “Ach (jAx),” in: Lexikon der Ägyptologie, Bd. 1: A–Ernte, Wiesbaden 1972, col. 49–52; G. Englund, Akh – une notion religieuse dans l’Égypte pharaonique (BOREAS” 11), Uppsala 1978; R. J. Demarée, The Ax ikr Ra – Stelae. On Ancestor Worship in Ancient Egypt, Leiden 1983; F. Friedman, “The Root Meaning of Ax: Effectiveness or Luminosity,” Serapis 8 (1984–1985), pp. 39–46; K. Jansen-Winkeln, “Horizont” und “Verklärtheit”: Zur Bedeutung der Wurzel Ax,” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 23 (1996), pp. 201–215; A. Niwiński, “The Double Structure of the Entity. The Ancient Egyptian Conception of the Human Being Reconsidered,” in: J. Popielska-Grzybowska, J. Iwaszczuk (eds.), Proceedings of the Fifth Central European Conference of Egyptologists: Egypt 2009: Perspectives of Research, Pułtusk 22–24 June 2009 (“Acta Archaeologica Pultuskiensia” 2), Pułtusk 2009, pp. 153–160; J. H. Taylor, Death and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt, London 2001.

7 Myśliwiec, “The Dead in the Marshes – Reed Coffins Revisited,” pp. 105–113.

8 R. Grieshammer, “Briefe an Tote,” in: Lexikon der Ägyptologie, Bd. 1: A–Ernte, col. 864–870; A.H. Gardiner, K. Sethe, Egyptian Letters to the Dead Mainly from the Old and Middle Kingdoms, London 1928; W. K. Simpson, “A Late Old Kingdom Letter to the Dead from Nag’ ed-Deir N 3500,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 56 (1970), pp. 58–62; H. el-Leithy, “Letters to the Dead in Ancient and Modern Egypt,” in: Z. Hawass (ed.), Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century. Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Egyptologists, Cairo 2000, Cairo–New York 2002, pp. 304–313.

9 K. Myśliwiec, “Father’s and Eldest Son’s Overlapping Feet; an Iconographic Message,” in: Z. Hawass, P. Der Manuelian, R. B. Hussein (eds.), Perspectives on Ancient Egypt: Studies in Honor of Edward Brovarski (“Supplément aux Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte” 40), Le Caire 2010, pp. 315–318.

10 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, pp. 175–178; K. Myśliwiec, “Fefi and Temi: Posthumous Neighbours (Sixth Dynasty, Saqqara),” in: Kh. Daoud, Sh. Bedier, S. Abd El-Fatah (eds.), Studies in Honor of Ali Radwan (“Supplément aux Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte” 34), Vol. 2, Le Caire 2005, pp. 197–211.

11 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 56–60.

12 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, p. 232 (3.2.3.).

13 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, pls. I–X.

14 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, pp. 23, 276–283; Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 427; T. Rzeuska, “Pottery,” in: Old Kingdom Structures, Warsaw 2013, p. 518.

15 Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, pp. 477–532.

16 D. Arnold (ed.), Studien zur altägyptischen Keramik, Mainz 1981; J. Bourriau, Umm el-Ga’ab. Pottery from the Nile Valley before the Arab Conquest, Cambridge 1981.

17 For example K. Myśliwiec, Keramik und Kleinfunde aus der Grabung im Tempel Sethos’ I. in Gurna, Mainz am Rhein 1987, pp. 13–26.

18 Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 431.

19 Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 431.

20 Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 434.

21 Rzeuska, “The Pottery,” in: Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 205–206.

22 Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 442, fn. 57.

23 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, pp. 275–283.

24 Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 444.

25 Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 444, pl. 173 (2).

26 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, plate 44 b and 48 a, d–f.

27 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 86–87, plate 48.

28 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 449, fn. 99.

29 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, pp. 449–451.

30 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 452.

31 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, pp. 453–465.

32 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 455.

33 N. Cherpion, Mastabas et hypogées d’Ancien Empire. Le problème de la datation, Bruxelles 1989, pp. 42–52.

34 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, pp. 468–469.

35 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 472.

36 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom.

37 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, pp. 471–473.

38 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, p. 62 (court 1A), pls. 25 g, 26 b–c, 27 b.

39 S. Ikram, “Faunal Remains. Preliminary Report,” Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 10 (1999): Reports 1998, p. 106.

40 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 476.

41 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, pp. 490–492.

42 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 488.

43 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, pp. 480–482.

44 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, pp. 482–483.

45 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, p. 56, fn. 8; T. Rzeuska, “The pottery,” pp. 207–208.

46 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 494.

47 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, pp. 509–511.

48 T. Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, pp. 510–512.

49 P. Der Manuelian, Living in the Past: Studies in Archaism of the Egyptian Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, London 1994; Myśliwiec, “Ramesside Traditions,” pp. 108–126.

50 Myśliwiec et al., The Tomb, pp. 246–250.

51 Myśliwiec, “Dating the Tombs,” pp. 651, 657.

52 Myśliwiec, “Dating the Tombs,” pp. 651–654.

53 A. Kanawati, Conspiracies in the Egyptian Palace: Unas to Pepy I, New York 2003, pp. 134–135; T. Stasser, La mère royale Seshseshet et les débuts de la VIe dynastie, Bruxelles 2013, pp. 48–49, 55–57.

54 See fn. 14.

55 Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 512.

56 Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 514.

57 Rzeuska, Pottery of the Late Old Kingdom, p. 516.

58 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, pp. 294–295.

59 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, p. 295.

60 A. M. Roth, A Cemetery of Palace Attendants, Including G 2084–2099, 2230–2231 and 2240 (“Giza Mastabas” 6), Boston 1995; Kanawati, Conspiracies, pp. 14–24.

61 Kanawati, Conspiracies, p. 19.

62 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, p. 295 (4–10).

63 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, p. 295 (2–3).

64 D. Nord, “Xkrt-nswt = King’s Concubine?,” Serapis 2 (1970), pp. 1–16.

65 Kuraszkiewicz, Architecture, p. 292 (44, 45), 294 (55); K. Myśliwiec, K. O. Kuraszkiewicz, “Two More Old Kingdom Priestesses of Hathor in Saqqara,” in: K. M. Ciałowicz, J. A. Ostrowski (eds.), Les civilisations du bassin méditerranéen. Hommages à Joachim Śliwa, Cracovie 2000, pp. 145–152; K. Myśliwiec, “Nobility Marrying Divinity in Pharaonic Egypt,” in: K. Myśliwiec, K. Pachniak, K. Nabożna, E. Wolny-Abouelwafa (eds.), Egypt Yesterday and Today: Between Tradition and Modernity, Warsaw 2019, fig. 4.