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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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List of figures

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List of figures


Il. 1. Map: Location of Saqqara at the border of Lower Egypt (the Nile Delta) and Middle Egypt (the Nile Valley).

Il. 2. Plan: Saqqara around the pyramid of Djoser.

Il. 3. Area of Polish excavations on the western side of the pyramid.

Il. 4. Location of three initial trial pits in the area studied geophysically in 1987 on the western side of Djoser’s pyramid.

Il. 5. Reconstruction of the façade of Merefnebef’s mastaba.

Il. 6. E-W section of the excavation area: from Djoser’s pyramid in the east to the ‘Dry Moat’ in the west.

Il. 7. Plan (a) and vertical section (b) through a collective tomb hewn into rock.

Il. 8. Sixth Dynasty burial shaft.

Il. 9. Burial shaft from the final phase of the Old Kingdom.

Il. 10–11. Joint underground structures (burial shafts and chambers) from the Sixth Dynasty.

Il. 12. Burial chamber with reed coffin.

Il. 13. Reed coffin in the undergrounds of a Sixth Dynasty mastaba.

Il. 14. Reed coffin: three phases of exploration.

Il. 15. Technique of joining reed sheaves forming the walls of the coffin.

Il. 16. Plan and vertical section through the corridor and crypt, i.e. the underground part of the sanctuary that was probably a cult place dedicated to Osiris.

Il. 17. Drawings of one of the wooden figurines found in the burial chamber of a nobleman named Ni-Pepi, cf. Figs. 76–78.

Il. 18. Plants burnt on the offering pile in the summer (a) and in the winter (b).

Il. 19. Different shapes of beer jars from the Old Kingdom necropolis in Saqqara.

Il. 20. Various shapes of the moulds for baking bread from the Old Kingdom necropolis in Saqqara.

Il. 21. The relief from the tomb of a nobleman named Debeheni (Fifth Dynasty) in Giza, depicting the funeral rituals by the mastaba.

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Il. 22. Plan of the tombs belonging to Merefnebef and Nyankhnefertum.

Il. 23–24. Left and right epaulettes from the cartonnage of a mummy. Ptolemaic Period. Cf. Figs. 167–171.

Il. 25. Fragment of a cartonnage: necklace with a panel depicting two pharaohs.

Il. 26. A king giving offerings to Osiris: scene on a fragmentary cartonnage decorating the feet.

Il. 27. The main directions for further excavations have been marked in blue: the brick platform by the recessed wall encircling the pyramid (to the right) and the ‘Dry Moat’ (to the left).

Il. 28. Section through the underground structures within the ‘blind tomb,’ cf. Figs. 183–187.

Il. 29. Vertical section through the upper part of the shaft adjacent to the west wall of General Ichi-Meri’s cult chapel, cf. Fig. 191.

Il. 30. E-W section through the general’s tomb after uncovering the architrave above the entrance to the lower tomb.

Il. 31: Next step in the exploration of the double tomb. Upper and lower cult chapels.


Fig. 1. Western side of Djoser’s pyramid: area before Polish excavations.

Fig. 2. Between Djoser’s pyramid and the ‘Dry Moat:’ the same area after Polish excavations (2010), cf. Il. 6.

Fig. 3. Quarry terraces left after exploitation during the construction of Djoser’s pyramid – photograph of the model.

Fig. 4. Façade of Vizier Merefnebef’s funerary chapel (early Sixth Dynasty).

Fig. 5. Corridor in a collective tomb from the final phase of the Old Kingdom, hewn into the eastern wall of the ‘Dry Moat.’

Fig. 6. Polish-French excavations in Edfu (1937–1939). Professor Kazimierz Michałowski, director of the mission, with the French Egyptologist Jean Sainte Fare Garnot and Polish historian Jerzy Manteuffel next to Tell Edfu Hill.

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Fig. 7. Polish excavations in Faras (Sudan). Professor Kazimierz Michałowski supervising the removal of paintings from the cathedral walls.

Fig. 8. Saint Anna. Painting from the Faras Cathedral, currently in the National Museum in Warsaw.

Fig. 9. Rescue excavations at Tell Atrib (Nile Delta). Ruins of ancient Athribis from the Ptolemaic period.

Fig. 10. Head of a marble Aphrodite figurine found in a sculptor’s workshop from the early Ptolemaic period (the third century BC) in Athribis (modern-day Tell Atrib).

Fig. 11. Golden earring from goldsmith’s workshop in Ptolemaic Athribis (the third century BC).

Fig. 12. Terracotta votive figurine from a coroplast’s workshop in Ptolemaic Athribis (the second century BC).

Fig. 13. Alexandria. Ruins of the ‘theatre’ in the centre of the city after it was discovered by the Polish archaeological mission.

Fig. 14. The same building currently.

Fig. 15. The Late Antique university with the ‘theatre’ as an aula.

Fig. 16. Anastylosis of the colonnade in the ancient public bath complex near the university (Fig. 15).

Fig. 17. Underground and aboveground part of the late Antique baths.

Fig. 18. Marina el-Alamein. Tombstones in the necropolis from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, discovered and reconstructed by the Polish archaeological mission.

Fig. 19. Naqlun. Chest with Arabic inscription, made in Sicily, reworked in Egypt. Currently in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. Twelfth century AD.

Fig. 20. Gurna (Western Thebes). Coptic manuscript found in a tomb from pharaonic times, later inhabited by a Christian monk (the ninth to the tenth century AD).

Fig. 21. Marea. The apse of the basilica constructed on the ruins of an earlier (the second or third century AD) pottery kiln.

Fig. 22. Marea. An ostracon with a text in Greek concerning the pay of labourers who worked on the construction of the basilica (probably the fifth to the sixth centuries AD), before and after conservation.

Fig. 23. Polish excavations in Dongola (Sudanese Nubia).

Fig. 24. Medieval church in Banganarti (Sudanese Nubia) discovered by the Polish archaeological mission.

Fig. 25. Deir el-Bahari (Western Thebes). A complex of temples including the terraced temple of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (in the foreground) and the ruins of the Temple of Thothmes III (adjacent to the latter).

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Fig. 26. Deir el-Bahari. Fragment of the wall decoration from the temple of the pharaoh Thothmes III.

Fig. 27. Statue of Thothmes III from his temple discovered by the Polish archaeological mission at Deir el-Bahari.

Fig. 28. Deir el-Bahari. Façade of the temple of Hatshepsut; Osirian pillars.

Fig. 29. Tell el-Farkha (Nile Delta). Excavations by the Polish archaeological mission in an important centre of power from the beginnings of Egyptian statehood.

Fig. 30. Tell el-Farkha. Image of a local ruler, made from gold foil, which was the cladding of a figurine from the Late Predynastic period.

Fig. 31. Gold foil modelled into the image of a ruler or his son, similarly as Fig. 30.

Fig. 32. Tell el-Farkha. Clay vessel containing a deposit of miniature votive figurines, in situ.

Fig. 33. Representation of animals carved into the surface of the vessel (Fig. 32).

Fig. 34. Assemblage of unique figurines made in majority from hippopotamus teeth, found in the vessel.

Fig. 35. Burial from the Ptolemaic period in the courtyard of Merefnebef’s tomb: a mummy shrouded in a cartonnage inside a clay coffin.

Fig. 36. Torso of the mummy (Fig. 35) with a beard in the shape characteristic for Egyptian deities.

Fig. 37. A pair of wooden coffins from the Ptolemaic period, deposited in a layer of sand on a rock surface.

Fig. 38. Detail of Fig. 37.

Fig. 39. Cartonnage from the beginnings of the Ptolemaic period found in an anthropoid-shaped rocky hollow in the courtyard of Merefnebef’s tomb. A winged solar disc on the jaw of the mask.

Fig. 40. Profile of the wall of the anthropoid-shaped hollow (Fig. 39) with multi-layered pugging containing the remains of offerings burnt in the courtyard of the tomb from the Old Kingdom.

Fig. 41. Fragment of polychromed reliefs decorating the eastern wall of the façade in the cult chapel of Vizier Merefnebef.

Fig. 42. Portrait of the vizier in sunken relief on the northern wall of the façade.

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Fig. 43. Interior of the vizier’s cult chapel: west wall with two ‘false doors.’

Fig. 44. Decoration of the east wall in the vizier’s cult chapel: wild bird fowling scene (original decoration) and fishery scene (added later after original relief had crumbled away).

Fig. 45. Procession of offering bearers depicted on the western wall of Vizier Merefnebef’s funerary chapel.

Fig. 46. Tragedy of kingfisher chicks being raped out of their nest by a genet-fowling scene (Fig. 44) detail.

Fig. 47. Naturalistic modelling of animals in the hunting scene; detail from Figs.44 and 46.

Fig. 48. Butterfly (Danaus chrysippus chrysippus) in a papyrus thicket-fowling scene detail.

Fig. 49. Egyptian goose; fowling scene detail.

Fig. 50. Still life, a pile of offerings made during rituals. Polichrome relief in the vizier’s funerary chapel.

Fig. 51. Portrait of Merefnebef and one of his four wives in the banquet scene on the south wall of the cult chapel.

Fig. 52. Performers in an acrobatic dance before the tomb owner: banquet scene detail.

Fig. 53. Female harpist quartet in the banquet scene.

Fig. 54. Dog and monkey – the vizier’s favourite pets under his throne.

Fig. 55. North wall of the doorway in the vizier’s tomb chapel with the representations of his two sons. Fragment of inscription above Merefnebef’s head that had been erased by iconoclasts.

Fig. 56. South wall of the doorway with the erased representation and inscription of the eldest son and the unscathed figure of a young man bearing one of his father’s names, Fefi.

Fig. 57. Fragment of inscription in the doorway leading to the vizier’s funerary chapel that was erased by iconoclasts. North wall.

Fig. 58. Damaged and secondarily inscribed part of hieroglyphic text, identical as in Fig. 57, located on south wall (cf. Fig. 56).

Fig. 59. Tomb owner in the company of one of his four wives and eldest son, whose representation has been hammered off the wall. West wall in the vizier’s funerary chapel.

Fig. 60. Architrave from Merefnebef’s eastern cult chapel, erected at the east wall of his brick mastaba after the vizier’s death.

Fig. 61. Profile of the stone foundations below the recessed wall encircling the temenos of Djoser’s pyramid, with the remains of a monumental earlier building (Second Dynasty?), on top of which this wall was founded.

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Fig. 62. A conglomerate of Old Kingdom burial shafts hewn out into the rock and anthropoid-shaped hollows for mummies from the Ptolemaic period.

Fig. 63. Unfinished limestone sarcophagus in the burial chamber of a nobleman from the final phase of the Old Kingdom.

Fig. 64. Lid of unfinished sarcophagus (Fig. 63) inserted provisionally into a ‘drawer’ hewn out into rock.

Fig. 65. Reed coffin in a Sixth Dynasty burial chamber. The remains of a burial left behind by looters.

Fig. 66. Human skeleton in a reed coffin. Final phase of the Old Kingdom.

Fig. 67. Texture of reed coffin walls.

Fig. 68. A live architect inside a coffin: the only position enabling precise recording of a burial chamber. A mask covers Beata Błaszczuk’s face.

Fig. 69. East wall of the ‘Dry Moat.’ In the foreground of the entrance to a corridor ending in a crypt.

Fig. 70. Exploration of the corridor leading to a crypt.

Fig. 71. Wild animal skeleton deposit on the surface of the backfill in the crypt (Fig. 70).

Fig. 72. Ritual harpoon underneath the animal bone deposit in the crypt (Fig. 71).

Fig. 73. Front part of the harpoon and its sheath (Fig. 72).

Fig. 74. Back part of the harpoon and its sheath.

Fig. 75. Bas-relief depicting a snake poised to attack, on both lateral sides of the harpoon.

Fig. 76. Wooden figurine of a man from the funerary outfit of a dignitary named Ni-Pepi (end of the Sixth Dynasty).

Fig. 77. Figurine with naturalistic facial features found in Ni-Pepi’s burial chamber.

Fig. 78. Head of figurine (Fig. 76) with idealised facial features.

Fig. 79. Set of miniature metal vessels from Ni-Pepi’s burial chamber.

Fig. 80. Miniature vessels (Fig. 79) after conservation.

Fig. 81. Set of miniature tools from Ni-Pepi’s burial chamber.

Fig. 82. Miniature limestone models from Ni-Pepi’s burial chamber.

Fig. 83. Ritual pottery from Merefnebef’s tomb in front of the ‘false door’ in his cult chapel.

Fig. 84. Set of pottery vessels for the ritual washing of the hands, from the Old Kingdom necropolis in Saqqara.

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Fig. 85. Set of clay jugs and bread-baking moulds from Old Kingdom tombs in Saqqara, cf. Ils. 19–20.

Fig. 86. Amphora imported from the Greek island of Samos, used secondarily for ritual purposes in one of the Ptolemaic period tombs in Saqqara.

Fig. 87. Stamp on the amphora’s handle (Fig. 86).

Fig. 88. Remains of brick walls of Merefnebef and Nyankhnefertum’s mastabas with traces of the wall linking their eastern faces.

Fig. 89. Only the patience of an archaeologist and anthropologist can save the anonymous inhabitants of the necropolis from being forgotten.

Fig. 90. Reaching into the depths of knowledge also requires one to be physically fit.

Fig. 91. Courtyard linking the cult chapels in Nyankhnefertum’s tomb complex, cf. Il. 22.

Fig. 92. Façade of Nyankhnefertum’s cult chapel; the tip of Djoser’s pyramid visible in the background.

Fig. 93. Interior of Nyankhnefertum’s cult chapel at the moment of discovery. View of the collapsed north wall.

Fig. 94. The same spot following archaeological exploration.

Fig. 95. Nyankhnefertum’s (= Temi’s) funerary chapel. The central scene on the east wall.

Fig. 96. Eightfold representation of the deceased on the chapel’s east wall. Northern part.

Fig. 97. Southern part of the scene.

Fig. 98. Temi in the company of two of his sons. Southern segment of east wall.

Fig. 99. The tomb owner with his eldest son. Relief ending the northern sequence of scenes on the east wall.

Fig. 100. North-west corner of Nyankhnefertum’s cult chapel. Polychrome ‘false door’ and offering table in front.

Fig. 101. Polychrome reliefs decorating the northern part of the west wall. Scenes depicting offering table and slaughterhouse.

Figs. 102–103. Polychrome reliefs decorating the northern part of the west wall. Frieze of rituals vessels.

Fig. 104. Frieze of ritual vessels in offering table scene. Relief details (Fig. 101).

Fig. 105. The eldest son of the deceased in front of the offering pile. Relief detail.

Fig. 106. Taking out oxen entrails. Episode in slaughter scene.

Fig. 107. Cutting off the haunch and its transport. Second episode of slaughter scene.

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Fig. 108. Cartouche with the name of Pharaoh Unis on the ‘false door’ (Fig. 100).

Fig. 109. Another cartouche with the name of Pharaoh Unis on the ‘false door’ (Fig. 100).

Figs. 110–120. Various epigraphic versions of the hieroglyph her in the inscriptions on the walls of Nyankhnefertum’s cult chapel.

Figs. 121–131. The hieroglyph m, i.e. a representation of an owl, in various epigraphic versions of this tomb.

Figs. 132–134. The name of the god Osiris with an anthropomorphic determinative with yellow skin. Epigraphic rarity.

Fig. 135. Double ‘false door’ spanning the southern part of the west wall. Nyankhnefertum’s cult chapel.

Fig. 136. Northern part of double ‘false door’ sculpted on the west wall of Temi’s chapel.

Fig. 137. Temi with his eldest son. Relief in the southern part of the double ‘false doors.’

Fig. 138. Temi with his wife. Relief on one of the doorjambs in the southern part of the double ‘false door.’

Fig. 139. The same couple (Fig. 138) in a large-sized scene on the south wall of Temi’s chapel.

Fig. 140. A papyrus boat carrying birds as an offering for the deceased. The upper register of the scene in front of the couple seated on a throne (Fig. 139).

Fig. 141. Second boat with a similar load.

Fig. 142. Two daughters and probably one of his sons offering the deceased an armful of lotus flowers. Middle register of scene in front of couple seated on a throne (Fig. 139).

Fig. 143. Live pets of the tomb owner: a dog and a monkey. Fragment of the relief in the bottom register of the scene on the south wall (Fig. 139).

Figs. 144–145. Fragments of sketches in the decoration on the south wall in Nyankhnefertum’s cult chapel: a) a rower’s head; b) geese in a cage.

Fig. 146. Nyankhnefertum with his two youngest sons. One of the segments of the ‘family panorama’ in relief on the east wall.

Fig. 147. Fragment of scene (Fig. 95) with a re-carved representation of one of the sons.

Fig. 148–149.   The bearers of holy oils and secondary inscriptions identifying them as the tomb owner’s sons. Relief adjacent to the ‘false door’ on the west wall.

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Fig. 150. Representations of the tomb owner and his names in the northern segment of the double ‘false door’ (Figs. 135–136).

Fig. 151. Portrait of Nyankhnefertum sculpted in the northern segment of the ‘false door’ by a master sculptor (Fig. 150).

Fig. 152. ‘Portrait’ of tomb owner done by apprentice stoneworker (Fig. 150).

Fig. 153. Fragment of the procession of offering bearers in the bottom register of scenes on the north wall of Temi’s chapel (Figs. 93–94): individual labelled as Mereri, in the inscription added later using red paint.

Fig. 154. Another person from this procession, an individual named Nefer. His name written using the bas relief technique contrasts with the palaeography of his companions’ names, hieroglyphs carved in sunken relief.

Fig. 155. Obscene stylisation of a hieroglyph in the inscription carved onto the ‘false door’ by an apprentice stoneworker: the representation of a sled (the sign tem) shaped as a phallus (the sign met).

Fig. 156. Evidence of the activities of the apprentices-jokesters in the façade of Nyankhnefertum’s cult chapel: re-carved hieroglyph tem (a sled) in the tomb owner’s name.

Fig. 157. The junction of two inscribed architraves at the meeting point of two adjacent chapels: one belonging to Temi and the other to his eldest son (?) (Il. 22).

Fig. 158. The façade of Temi’s chapel, northern part. Underneath the architrave, the anepigraphic part of the wall is visible, with the remains of plaster prepared for the unexecuted decoration.

Fig. 159. Archaeologists unearthing the skeleton burials in the Upper Necropolis before recording them.

Fig. 160. Mummy in a cartonnage (early Ptolemaic period) ‘sitting’ on the edge of a 2000-year earlier tomb.

Fig. 161. Decoration of mummy cartonnage (Fig. 160).

Fig. 162. Fragment of cartonnage (Fig. 160): segment decorating the legs.

Fig. 163. Chest for the mummy’s feet.

Fig. 164. Sandals seen from underneath (the soles): painting on the chest (Fig. 160).

Fig. 165. Burial from Ptolemaic period with funerary equipment in situ: canopic chest and figurine of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.

Figs. 166–167. Two faces of the canopic chest (Fig. 165).

Fig. 168. Figurine of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris (Fig. 165).

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Fig. 169. Cartonnage mummy epaulette in situ.

Figs. 170–171. Painting on the epaulettes, cf. Il. 23–24.

Fig. 172. Fragment of mummy: plaques with representation of Anubis on the feet of the deceased.

Fig. 173. Anubis (detail of Fig. 172).

Fig. 174. Documentation work at a coffin from the Ptolemaic period in the field laboratory adjacent to the vizier’s cult chapel.

Fig. 175. ‘Offering list’ on the west wall of Merefnebef’s cult chapel.

Fig. 176. Plaque inserted by the decorators of the vizier’s tomb into the crumbled part of the façade.

Fig. 177. Fragment of the destroyed inscription carved in deep relief in the northern part of the façade in the vizier’s cult chapel (Fig. 176).

Fig. 178. Fragment of cartonnage from the Ptolemaic period at the moment of its discovery.

Fig. 179. Conservators at work on the cartonnage (Fig. 178).

Fig. 180. Cartonnage (Fig. 178) after conservation.

Fig. 181. Underground workshop of the archaeologists and conservators.

Fig. 182. “To be or not to be.” Zbigniew Godziejewski in the role of Hamlet.

Fig. 183. Old Kingdom tombs overlaid with a brick platform during the New Kingdom.View from the south, cf. Il. 28.

Fig. 184. Entrance into the Old Kingdom ‘false tomb.’ View from the north.

Fig. 185. Frontal wall of the ‘false tomb’ (bottom level) and the northern edge of the brick platform (top level) on the E-W axis of Djoser’s pyramid (visible in the background). View from the west.

Fig. 186. Structures from the Old Kingdom (bottom level) and the New Kingdom (top level) (Fig. 185) on the pyramid’s axis. View from the north-west.

Fig. 187. ‘Blind’ ending of the underground corridor: ceiling converging with the floor.

Fig. 188. Field survey determining the location of future excavations.

Fig. 189. Excavation by ‘Dry Moat’s’ western section.

Fig. 190. View of the same spot after the excavation campaign: entrance to an Old Kingdom tomb in the façade of the ‘Dry Moat,’ in the foreground – burials in terracotta coffins from the Ptolemaic period (Upper Necropolis).

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Fig. 191. Extracting the ‘false door’ from inside General Ikhi-Meri’s burial shaft, cf. Il. 29.

Fig. 192. Façade of Ikhi-Meri’s cult chapel with unfinished wall decoration. View from the east, cf. Il. 30.

Fig. 193. Scene of offering table. Sketch on façade’s west wall.

Fig. 194. Unfinished relief on the façade’s north wall (Fig. 192): procession of offering bearers (bottom register) and feet from the fragmentarily preserved image of the general.

Fig. 195. Lower ‘floor’ of a unique sepulchral structure emerging from underneath the general’s funerary chapel, cf. Il. 30.

Fig. 196. Old Kingdom burial shafts in front of ‘Dry Moat’s’ east façade.

Fig. 197. Burial of a child at the bottom of a shaft in a collective tomb from the final phase of the Old Kingdom.

Fig. 198. The child’s wooden coffin after exploration, reconstructed by conservators.

Fig. 199. Plaster casing for a dead body from an Old Kingdom tomb.

Fig. 200. Facial features of the plaster casing (Fig. 199).

Figs. 201–203. Skull of a young woman with fragmentarily preserved plaster casing covering the hole left from trepanation. Old Kingdom.

Fig. 204. Archaeologists of the world, unite! Karol Myśliwiec with Egyptian workers during exploration of burial shaft.

Fig. 205. Last day of a two-month excavation campaign. All that was left to do was a commemorative picture with Rais Said Kereti (second from the left) and the best workers; we will meet again the following year (insh Allah = Allah willing). From the left: Egyptian guard of the excavation area and Fabian Welc, Beata Błaszczuk, Małgorzata Radomska, Teresa Żurkowska, Marek Woźniak, Iwona Ciszewska-Woźniak, Zbigniew Godziejewski, Magdalena Abramowska, Iwona Kozieradzka-Ogunmakin, Teodozja I. Rzeuska, Kamil O. Kuraszkiewicz, Agnieszka Kowalska, Egyptian workers, Wojciech Wojciechowski. In the middle of the group: Karol Myśliwiec and Egyptian Egyptologist, inspector and devoted friend of the mission, Ali El-Batal (in glasses).

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