The Saqqara Necropolis

The Saqqara Necropolis

Step Pyramid and Excavation

The Saqqara Necropolis is famous for many reaso​ns:

  • the burial of some of the most important figures in Egyptian history
  • the location of the Sacred Animal Galleries
  • the site of the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of King Djoser of the 3rd Dynasty (2686–2613 BCE), and
  • the burial location of the pyramid's architect, Imhotep.

Imhotep

Imhotep held many court titles but is usually referred to as King Djoser's builder, sculptor and architect.
 
In later years he was deified and associated with wisdom, writing and medicine. The Greeks identified him with Asclepius, their god of medicine.
 
Many archaeologists consider finding his tomb as the next great discovery after the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Saqqara Necropolis

The Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project has been surveying the Saqqara Necropolis since 1990, concentrating on the area surrounding the Step Pyramid.
 
The area surveyed by the Project incorporates previous excavations. In the 1890s, French archaeologists A E Mariette and J de Morgan carried out excavations. The British archaeologists J E Quibell, C M Firth and W B Emery excavated during 1912 to 1956.
 
All of these archaeologists had the hope of discovering the tomb of Imhotep.
 
The work of the Saqqara Project has shown that a large number of previously unidentified structures exist under the sand. Many of them are the largest magnetic data plots of tombs so far found in the Saqqara necropolis.
 
Following the layout of previous royal burials, it is apparent that court officials wished to be buried near to their king. So we must assume that Imhotep would follow the trend and be buried close to or within sight of his King Djoser, especially if he was the architect of the Step Pyramid.
 
The area surrounding the Step Pyramid shows there were already massive structures to the west and south belonging to kings of the 2nd Dynasty (2890–2686 BCE).

The eastern topography was not suitable for the size of structure we assume that Imhotep would command. Indeed, our recent work has shown the area to be full of small stone-built shaft graves.
 
This leaves us with the north and north-east section of the necropolis. It is here that we find many clues as to the whereabouts of Imhotep.
 
In the Early Dynastic period (3000–2686 BCE) the kings and courtiers of the 1st and 2nd Dynasties built tombs along the eastern edge of the necropolis. They were followed by the nobles of the 3rd Dynasty, including Imhotep.
 
In later years Imhotep was associated with the worship of Thoth, the ibis-headed god of learning. Therefore, temples and sanctuaries built later would have a logical association with the burial place of Imhotep.
 
The Sacred Animal Necropolis is located in the north-east quarter of the site. This is where most references to Imhotep are found.

What style of structure should we associate with Imhotep's possible burial?

Imhotep built a large rectangular enclosure for his king. It contained a pyramid structure made of several extensions of a mastaba-type (rectangular brick or stone) tomb. It also included various cult chapels located round the perimeter, with an entrance in the south-east corner.
 
We have no reason to doubt the fact that Imhotep would be high in the king's favour. So, a similar large enclosure might be expected to be found within sight of the Step Pyramid and near the other burials of the 3rd Dynasty.
 
If we remember that the pyramid of Userkaf (2494–2487 BCE) of the 5th Dynasty had not been built at this time, there is a clear line of sight between the Step Pyramid and the largest mastaba-type structure yet found on the Saqqara Necropolis, which lies in the north-east area.
 

Geophysical Survey of 2005 and 2006

In 2005 and 2006 our geophysical survey was extended to the north and east where we hoped to link our work with the existing 1st and 2nd Dynasty tombs excavated by J E Quibell and W B Emery during 1912 to 1958.
The survey proved to be very rewarding in that many previously unrecorded mastaba tombs were found. They extended across the site, linking up with the above excavations.
 
It was during this survey that the two largest structures yet discovered in the Saqqara Necropolis were recorded. The largest unit appears to be a mud brick enclosure which measures approximately 90 metres in length and 40 metres in width. It has walls over five metres thick, with an entrance in the south east corner of the east wall.
 
There appears to have been a mound in the centre, where it can be seen there has been an attempt at excavation. Otherwise, the remainder of the structure appears untouched, almost a copy of the Step Pyramid enclosure.
 
The second large enclosure lies some 20 metres to the east and is approximately 70 metres in length and 50 metres wide. It has very thick walls and a complicated internal structure which could point to a temple or courtyard with columns. An attempt at excavation is apparent in the north central area.
 
Someone of the standing of Imhotep would command the artisans and labour needed to build such imposing structures and it is surely time we carried out further exploration.
 
Due to the sensitive nature of the area, there is a ban on excavation work until 2013.
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