Early Dynastic Tombs at Saqqara

A ridge that runs along the eastern edge of the North Saqqara escarpment, all the way to Abusir, has been found to contain the Early Dynastic burials of many Dynasty I and Dynasty II elite. First properly excavated by Walter Emery in the 1930s and by successive archaeologists since then, the dense area of large mudbrick mastabas has been uncovered and re-buried over many years.

Dynasty I & II Necropolis at Saqqara

Our knowledge of the administration of this period is still very hazy and even the sequence of Kings is often debated. Most of the information we have from the Early Dynastic Period is gleaned from seals and impressions, or the numerous inscribed ivory and wooden labels,  stelae and stone vessels found in the cemeteries. During Emory’s excavations at North Saqqara it was assumed that the mastabas belonged to rulers of Dynasty I who also had tombs at Abydos and discussions centred around which site had contained the actual burials and which were cenotaphs for cult purposes. More recent observations however, conclude that North Saqqara was the elite cemetery of those Memphis officials whose rulers were buried at Abydos.

Niched facade of Early Dynastic mastaba

The long mudbrick walls that sometimes stretch as far as 50m were decorated with the typical ‘palace façade’ that we see at Abydos and also later on Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex. The necropolis was begun during the reign of the second King of Dynasty I, Hor-Aha and the rectangular mastabas were either filled with gravel or divided into chambers, many of them used as storerooms to contain the rich trappings of burials and decorated with reliefs or paintings. As with the Abydos royal tombs, the Saqqara mastabas become increasingly more elaborate into Dynasty II when subterranean chambers were excavated from the solid rock with some of them perhaps incorporating a rudimentary funerary temple.  In the later tombs, the ‘palace façade’ decoration became simpler, but with two false doors added to the outer walls. The underground chambers were arranged to represent a typical contemporary house, while the unfired brick superstructure was filled with a sold core of rubble or mud.

One of the most lavish tombs to be discovered at Saqqara belonged to Hemaka, chancellor and perhaps the most important official of King Den of Dynasty I. His tomb yielded a wealth of artefacts of superb quality including a wooden box containing the first roll of papyrus ever to be found in Egypt.

Recently excavated mastaba under protective walls

The most recent Early Dynastic mastaba to be excavated at North Saqqara was found in 1995 when the area was surveyed for the building of new SCA storage facilities. The Dynasty I tomb, excavated by Zahi Hawass, was found to contain the name of a little-known King Nefer-sieka, whose monuments are rare. Within the mountains of rubble from the burial chamber, Dr Hawass found large quantities of broken pottery, pieces of alabaster and flint tools. In the same area ten more smaller tombs were found which had been re-used during the New Kingdom. One of the tombs revealed a unique mudbrick false door topped by a wooden panel carved with an offering scene of the deceased, whose name unfortunately could not be read, but it may be the earliest example of a false door ever found. In a shaft in another of the tombs, Dr Hawass found a skeleton wrapped in linen and laid in the foetal position which he announced as the oldest mummy to be found in Egypt.

Little can be seen today of the Early Dynastic mastabas at North Saqqara as they have all been back-filled, their superstructures barely visible and are now covered by wind-blown sand. Generally the Dynasty I mastabas follow the eastern ridge with the Dynasty II tombs arranged behind them. Only a few have been positively identified, such as tombs 3503 owned by Queen Merneith, 3504 owned by Sekhemka, 3505 – Ka, and 3507 – Queen Hernieth, possible wife of King Djer, but many artefacts that have appeared over the past century give the names of many other individuals that were buried here. It is an area that may still contain a wealth of information not yet discovered.

Dynasty II royal mastabas near the Pyramid of Unas

While the early necropolis at the northern end of Saqqara is the cemetery for the elite, the rulers themselves appear to have abandoned the ancestral burial site at Abydos in favour of Saqqara from the time of the first king of Dynasty II, Hetepsekhemwy, who constructed his tomb about 1km south of the elite cemetery. So far only the names of this king and Ninetjer have been positively linked with tombs at Saqqara, though the names of other early kings are attested here. The Saqqara royal tombs were cut from the bedrock and incorporated a new design, unlike the earlier tombs at Abydos that were basically pits lined with mudbricks. The practice of building subsidiary graves for family and servants surrounding the royal tomb was discontinued. Hetepsekhemwy’s immense tomb, very close to the Pyramid of Unas with extensive galleries partly underlying the pyramid, was identified by numerous seal impressions bearing the King’s Horus names and those of his successor Nebre, but his tomb was otherwise empty. There are no remains of a superstructure. The nearby tomb of Nebre’s successor Ninetjer, is currently being re-investigated by a German archaeological team. When it was first discovered it was found to contain hundreds of Late Period mummies from later burials. Although it is likely that subsequent kings may have been buried at Saqqara they have not yet been found, though Early Dynastic structures have recently been located beneath the New kingdom tombs of Maya and Meryneith by the Dutch team working in the area. We know that by the end of Dynasty II the kings Peribsen and Khasekhemwy had once more chosen to be buried at Abydos.

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