The first major discovery was a stela (gravestone). The stela depicts the burial over 2,500 years ago of a high status Persian administrator when Persia occupied Egypt – the first period of Persian rule in Egypt was 525 to 404 BCE; the second period was from 343 to 332 BCE.
The stela is now housed in the Cairo Museum. But by far the most important discovery came in 2001 when the team found a temple complex dating back 2,500 years.
The centre of the Saqqara excavation holds the burial place of the sacred Apis Bull, known as the Serapeum. Room-sized sarcophagi held mummies of the huge bulls.
The Egyptians worshipped the Apis bull. It was thought to have been an incarnation of Ptah who was seen as the first of all gods, the creator of the world.
One Apis bull was worshipped at a time. When it died a day of national mourning was declared. The dead bull was embalmed and its corpse taken along the sacred way – the Serapeum Way – from Memphis to Saqqara.
In 2002 and 2003, the Saqqara team did extensive geophysical surveys of the area. It discovered many tomb structures and a complicated area of structures which could be large tombs subdivided by smaller burials, workshops or living quarters.
The team decided to extend the survey to the east and south. This covered areas of disturbed ground where excavations during 1850 to 1960 had uncovered many structures without accurately surveying or recording them. The structures were now covered by windblown sand and lost to records.
In 2004, a number of finds were recorded. In addition to several large mastabas (rectangular brick or stone tombs) and smaller structures, the major find of the season was the re-discovery of the Serapeum Way which Mariette had excavated in 1852.
Mariette had found 135 sphinxes lining the ceremonial route from the Pyramid of Teti to the Serapeum. The Apis bulls were taken along this route for burial in the underground galleries of the Serapeum.
Further excavations by Mariette uncovered the dromos entrance (dromos means ceremonial approach to the Serapeum). He also discovered the galleries and the temples to Serapis and Apis, as well as a semicircle of statues to the Greek philosophers and poets.
Most of the sphinx statues are in the Cairo Museum and in the Louvre. The whole area – with the exception of the philosopher's statues – is again buried under many metres of sand.
2004 also confirmed the value and accuracy of the geophysical and topographical surveys. The use of the gradiometer to delineate sub-surface features has been amply proved by the small-scale sondage trenches (sondage is a sounding trench which allows the depth to be judged).
These were excavated in 2001, 2002 and 2003 to test the anomalies – differences in readings showing that a structure or geological feature is causing the data increase or decrease, in this case most probably mudbrick tombs, temples or chapels.
In all cases, the accuracy of the topographic survey has allowed the team to open the sondage exactly over the anomaly shown by the geophysical data.
The saving of labour time, and the ability to keep excavation to strict limits, means the environmental damage is controlled and the archaeological interpretation of the site enhanced.
From a report by a German archaeologist, the walls of the Serapeum Way and the Dromos were covered with graffiti by visiting pilgrims. The chapels and any existing sphinx platforms should have hieroglyphic dedications.
Our experts Tony Leahy and Elizabeth Bettles will record and translate this material.