On Tuesday I returned, for the first time in over two years, to a site I know very well. Saqqara is most famous as the home of the Step Pyramid of King Djoser (c. 2667-2648 BC), Egypt’s (and arguably the world’s) first major monumental construction entirely built in stone. Over the last few years conservation work has been undertaken to shore up the pyramid’s crumbling walls. Though necessary, the scaffolding remains something of an eyesore and detracts slightly from this impressive monument.
Since 2006, I have been a member of a pioneering research project that uses a range of geophysical techniques to map the necropolis surrounding the Step Pyramid – revealing many structures that previously lay undetected beneath the sand. The Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project (SGSP) is Scotland’s only archaeological mission in Egypt, and was the brainchild of Ian Mathieson. Ian was a real pioneer of the appliance of science to Egyptian archaeology, a charismatic Scotsman who became a close friend and mentor. Since he passed away at the age of 83 in 2010, his energy and interdisciplinary approach to fieldwork have been much missed. Those of us who worked with him are keen to continue his exciting work.
Some of the last objects to enter the Manchester Museum collection from Egypt (in the 1970s, when the Egyptian authorities still permitted a proportion of finds to be exported abroad by their excavators) come from Saqqara. During the First Millennium BC, Saqqara was at the heart of a peculiarly Egyptian religious practice: the cult of sacred animals. Although the ‘Sacred Animal Necropolis’ focussed on the worship of one sacred bull, a large number of species were bred, killed, mummified and buried here as votive gifts to the gods. The remains of several million mummified birds, cats, dogs, and baboons have been discovered in underground catacombs at Saqqara. The new Egyptian World gallery will feature more information about the work of the SGSP in establishing where this vast industry of sacred animals operated, what the religious rationale behind the cult was, and new scientific research on the animal mummies themselves.
The last season I spent with Ian and the SGSP in 2009, we surveyed an area around the tomb of Horemheb – a high-ranking army general under Tutankhamun (c. 1336-1327 BC), who himself became king and was subsequently buried in the Valley of the Kings. Our work revealed the outline of several unknown tombs in this area. Some others nearby have been excavated and restored by an Anglo-Dutch mission, and have recently been opened to the public. A highlight of my visit was to see the superbly-decorated burial chamber of a man called Maya, treasurer under Tutankhamun and contemporary of Horemheb.
Saqqara has another connection with Manchester. Before she came to Manchester to pioneer the scientific investigation of mummies with the unwrapping of the Two Brothers, Margaret Murray spent several seasons working at Saqqara as a student of W.M.F. Petrie. The result was a number of handsome volumes publishing mastaba tombs there. In Murray’s day, such results were only possible through digging – and the ultimately destructive effects of archaeology. Now, with geophysical techniques, it is possible to plan many of the tombs Murray identified without lifting a trowel. Archaeological fieldwork is of prime importance to understanding and properly contextualising museum objects. I hope to develop further both the legacy of Ian Mathieson and Margaret Murray, to better understand Saqqara – a site from which we have a very rich collection of objects.