Mapping subsurface Saqqara

Revealing the remains of a tightly packed complex of previously unknown temples and tombs.

Between 1990 and 2009, the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project (SGSP) – the only Scottish mission to work in Egypt – created a map of subsurface features in the Memphite necropolis. While the Saqqara plateau is mostly famous for the Step Pyramid of King Djoser Netjerikhet of the Third Dynasty, the site was used throughout the pharaonic period for both tombs and temples. The application of geophysical techniques at Saqqara has greatly improved our understanding of that long history, and revealed many more structures than were previously known or suspected.

The founding director of the project was Ian Mathieson. Born in Edinburgh in 1927, Ian was a pioneer, applying science to archaeological exploration in Egypt by using technology he had developed for commercial purposes. After having initially shared his expertise with colleagues working at Memphis and Amarna for the Egypt Exploration Society, Ian was awarded his own concession for the National Museums of Scotland (later Glasgow Museums) by the Egyptian government in 1990. The remit covered the entire Saqqara necropolis and kept Ian busy for the last 20 years of his life. His death in June 2010 deprived Egyptian archaeology of one of its most charismatic figures.

Ian Mathieson at work on the Saqqara plateau.

One of the earliest structures to be explored by the SGSP was the Gisr el-Mudir (‘Great Enclosure’). This large (c.350 × 650 metres), rectangular enclosure pre-dates Djoser’s complex, and is approximately twice its size. It appears to have been constructed some time during the Second Dynasty, and as such is the earliest stone structure on a monumental scale to have survived from pharaonic Egypt.

At the opposite end of the Pharaonic timescale, during the Late Period (c.650-30 BC), builders favoured the use of large mud bricks – which show up perfectly in geophysical survey. Frenchman Auguste Mariette discovered the Serapeum Way in 1850. This elaborate processional route ran from the entrance of the Serapeum catacombs, the burial place of the sacred Apis bulls, to the Sixth Dynasty mastaba of Mereruka. Between 2004 and 2006, the SGSP made a much more accurate geophysical map of the Serapeum Way, showing large numbers of much earlier rectangular tombs to the north.

Although difficult to imagine now, the Saqqara plateau in the Late Period would have been bustling with activity. Saqqara was at the heart of that quintessentially Egyptian practice: the cult of sacred animals. The gods, who so often took animal form, could be placated by the gift of one of their sacred species, or a bronze statue of the same.

Thus the Sacred Animal Necropolis would have provided a lucrative trading opportunity, as evidenced by the millions of votive animal mummies and bronze figurines that were purchased by pilgrims. From all over Egypt and around the ancient Mediterranean world, pilgrims would have come not only to leave their offerings, but also to witness the elaborate burial rites of the sacred bull itself, centred on the Serapeum.

Over 20 years, the SGSP contributed significantly to the understanding of the sacred landscape of Saqqara, and its results – published in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology and elsewhere – continue to inform current research.

Image: Image: Colin Reader / Text: Campbell Price