The finding of the Serapeum of Saqqara by Auguste Mariette in 1851 was important for more than one reason. It was, in its own right, a discovery of the highest significance, revealing more than a millennium of the history of one of the most important animal cults of ancient Egypt. But it also had a long-term impact on the field of Egyptology itself, bringing to prominence the man who would, before the end of the decade, undertake the refounding of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, fundamentally altering the way in which the archaeological heritage of Egypt would be managed down to the present day.
Ironically, as the future ‘gamekeeper’ of archaeology in Egypt, Mariette began as a ‘poacher’. He had been sent to Egypt by the Louvre Museum in 1850 to buy Coptic manuscripts but, faced with interminable delays in getting the appropriate permits, visited the ancient sites around Cairo. At Saqqara, he stumbled across sphinxes that he recognised formed part of a processional way. From a reference to such an avenue in the work of the early 1st century AD author Strabo, Mariette realised that these would lead him to the Serapeum, the temple of the Apis bull, an avatar of the Memphite god Ptah.
Without any official permission, in November 1850, Mariette gathered workmen to begin to clear the sand from the sphinx-avenue. This terminated in a group of statues of Greek philosophers, which lay at the start of the main approach (dromos) of the temple-complex of the Apis, which including chapels, and statuary in both Egyptian and Greek style.
On 12 November, Mariette entered what would later be dubbed the ‘Greater Vaults’ of the burial-catacomb of the Apis bull, which were employed between the early Twenty-sixth Dynasty and the end of the Ptolemaic Period. Many of the individual burial chambers held large granite sarcophagi, but all had been emptied in the past, probably by Christian iconoclasts in the 4th century AD. Next, in February 1852, the ‘Lesser Vaults’ came to light, taking the story of the Serapeum back to the days of Ramesses II. It is possible that parts of this catacomb had been visited by Paul Lucas (antiquarian to the French king Louis XIV) in the early 18th century, but had since been lost. Finally, between March and September 1852, Mariette found the ‘Isolated Tombs’, containing the earliest known Apis-burials, the oldest of all dating to the reign of Amenhotep III.
By modern standards, Mariette’s methods were crude and his work has never been fully published, with key documents now lost. Nevertheless, he was a crucial figure in the development of Egyptology, with his discovery of the Serapeum setting the stage for all that was to come.
Aidan Dodson - Honorary Professor of Egyptology, University of Bristol