Project Background

Project Background

Mariette Plan 1882

The story of Saqqara is a long one. The site of the Serapeum had been recorded in 24 BCE by the Greek geographer, philosopher and historian Amaseia Pontus Strabo (63 BCE–21 AD), who said he had found:​ 

'A temple to Serapis in such a sandy place that the wind heaps up sand dunes beneath which we saw sphinxes, some half buried, some buried up to the head, from which one can suppose that the way to this temple could not be without danger if one were caught in a sudden wind storm.' ('Serapeum' - from (Usir-Hapy) the deceased Apis bull, Greek (Osorapis) later identified with the Ptolemaic god Serapis, the composite in final forms of Zeus, Helios, Dionysus, Hades and Asklepios.)

The period from the 15th century to the 18th century saw visits from antiquarians, but no true archaeological work was done during this time.

In 1798, the French Emperor Napoleon ordered an expedition of learned (Savants) to search for the Serapeum as part of their survey, but they failed to find it. However, in 1850 the French archaeologist A E Mariette – who had read Strabo - did discover the complex.

Mariette and his team began excavations, and eventually found the route to the Serapeum lined by 135 sphinxes and a buried temple courtyard. It was not until 1851 that they made entry to the catacomb where they found the sarcophagi of the Apis bulls, some weighing up to 70 tons, and the mummified burial of Prince Khaemwaset, who was a son of Ramesses II.

Further excavation work done in 1852 by Mariette revealed more Apis burials, ranging in date from year 30 of Ramesses II down to the 22nd Dynasty, and from Amenophis III of the 18th Dynasty through to the 19th Dynasty.

From this date onwards there was a considerable amount of excavation carried out on the Saqqara Necropolis, the major contributors being:

  • the Prussian C R Lepsius who carried out survey and excavations in 1842–45

  • Gaston Maspero in 1860

  • Jaques de Morgan in 1896

  • W M F Petrie and J E Quibell in 1900

  • Walter Emery in 1950, and

  • Egyptians Ahmed Fakhry, Zakaria Goneim, and A S Hussein.

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