The research team sends a Sakkara diary of the excavation every Tuesday
(see below photos)

Excavation campaign 2023

On 19 February 2023, the international research team came together in Saqqara to work on this Egyptian site until 24 March. For nearly fifty years, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden has been conducting excavations in Saqqara, the cemetery of the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis. As of 2015, the museum collaborates in this project with the Museo Egizio in Turin.

Continuation after delay

After two and a half years of delay, due to the corona pandemic, the Leiden-Turin excavations finally resumed in the autumn of 2022. That season, the team excavated the monumental tomb of Panehsy. He was a dignitary in the reign of Ramesses II (c. 1279–1259 BC).

Tomb of Panehsy

The investigation continues this year in and around the tomb to find out more about Panehsy and the area where his tomb was built. In addition, previously excavated objects will be studied, such as fragments of wooden statuettes and coffins. You can read about this work and much more in the Saqqara diaries, which will appear weekly.

Partner Museo Egizio

The team consists of several scientists and is led by Dr. habil. Lara Weiss and Dr. Daniel Soliman (curators of the Egyptian and Nubian collection of the National Museum of Antiquities), together with Dr. Christian Greco, director of the Museo Egizio, Turin. The project is co-funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and the Friends of Saqqara Foundation.

Opgraving Sakkara

Week 3: Alessandro measuring with the total station (photo 1)

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Week 3: Andrea acquiring images for the photogrammetric elaborations (photo 2)

Saqqara diary

Week 3 (14 – 21 March 2023):

By Andrea Pasqui

Hello everyone! I am Andrea Pasqui, PhD student in Egyptology at Politecnico di Milano at the Department of Architecture, Built Environment and Construction Engineering. Here in Saqqara, I work alongside Alessandro Mandelli, a specialised technician from the same Department, on the activities of ultra-high precision topographic and photogrammetric surveying, under the scientific direction of Professor Corinna Rossi.

These survey methods, which are becoming increasingly popular in archaeological excavations, will occupy a role of growing importance, given its many applications: a three-dimensional model obtained from a photogrammetric survey, in fact, has a wide-ranging potential. Various investigations can be conducted on it: in the case of buildings, their architectural forms can be studied in order to understand the appearance and function they must have had at the time of their construction and later (re)use. On the basis of the photogrammetric survey of the tomb of Meryneith carried out by Alessandro Mandelli a few years ago, for example, I was able to model what the tomb’s original appearance might have been by referring to similar cases and the relevant scientific literature.

The possibility to freely navigate within the three-dimensional model allows one to delve into the relationships it had with the surroundings and the surrounding buildings, highlighting any alignments with other features that might missed ‘live’ on the field. And again, by superimposing different surveys made in different days, one can analyse the evolution of the excavation over time; or one can virtually eliminate disturbing elements such as modern additions that hamper an integral reading of the site. One of the most important products of our work, in addition to the three-dimensional models whose peculiarities we have already highlighted, are the orthophotos. These elaborations basically consist of the (perfectly orthogonal) projections of everything we survey on a horizontal plane: this high-resolution image (we work at a resolution in which one pixel corresponds to a tenth of millimetre) is the basis for the two-dimensional redrawing of plans of archaeological sites.

But the product of photogrammetric surveys is not just for scholars: its appeal makes it a perfect medium for the dissemination of archaeological knowledge. Indeed, three-dimensional models allow to easily explain how a tomb must have (or rather ‘could have’) looked like during the New Kingdom, for example, as well as to virtually re-insert artefacts, now preserved in museums around the world, in their original context. Some fragments of reliefs have been found during excavations in the last few days, and in the event that they cannot be physically repositioned in their original location, there is nothing to prevent them from doing so in the digital environment! In short, photogrammetric surveying has a great potential and many interesting applications, both in the academic and museum fields!

But in practice, what do Alessandro and I do?

Our day begins with the installation of the total station (photo 1): this instrument, the basis of topography, is of paramount importance for our work. In fact, it allows us to measure distances and angles with absolute precision from a previously established topographic point of known coordinates, on which we position the station. The one we use, for example, was acquired in 2019 and is called SAK19P1. Thanks to this, and the use of coded markers that we strategically place around what we must record, every photogrammetric survey we carry out will have precise and unambiguous geographical coordinates.

Once the stationing is complete, we can proceed with the actual surveys: we are at the disposal of archaeologists or anyone who needs to create a three-dimensional model of contexts, features or objects. If, during the excavation, a cachette of pottery or human remains or a particular object is found, we proceed with georeferencing its position in the context and then with the actual photogrammetric record: with a digital camera and wide-angle or semi-wide-angle lenses (but sometimes we even have to use fish-eye lenses, if we are working in very narrow spaces!) we take photographs of the object from all angles (photo 2). We then import the topographical data obtained with the total station and the photographs taken and process them into a highly accurate three-dimensional model. We do this several times a day, both for small to medium-sized objects (such as a decorated stele:

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and for entire contexts:

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as well as for the entire excavation area:

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Now I must say goodbye because Alessandro is calling me to order. I’ll get back to holding the camera to tackle new surveys and produce three-dimensional models. Stay here for updates from the other team members see you soon. Bye!

Opgraving Sakkara 2023

Week 2: Dr. Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod analyzes wooden objects with her microscope in the tomb of Horemheb.

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Week 2: Wood sample (sycamore fig) from the coffin under the microscope.

Saqqara diary

Week 2 (7 – 14 March 2023): In Amongst the Coffin Wood

By Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod

During the 1999 season at Saqqara, the excavators found two wooden coffins near the tomb of Horemheb. These coffins were not in great shape – the damage caused by a combination of moisture, age, and termites had left many pieces more closely resembling slices of Swiss cheese than the sturdy wooden coffins in which their owners had received their final rites.

Opgraving Sakkara 2023

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Parts of the rectangular and anthropoid coffins found in 1999 and restudied in 2023.

They were therefore not exactly what you might consider, “museum quality”. After they were studied and published, they were therefore not put on display but laid in a storehouse in Saqqara near their original resting place. There they slept until this year, 2023, when they were awakened once more so that we might learn new information about Egypt’s ancient past.

I am Dr. Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod. I am an archaeologist that specializes in the analysis of ancient wooden objects – and I’m particularly obsessed with Egyptian wooden coffins. One of the goals of the excavation season this year was to complete a more thorough analysis of the pieces of these coffins before turning to a study of the wooden remains from more recent excavation seasons.

As we took the pieces out of the storeroom, the poor preservation discussed in the original publication was immediately obvious – and some additional critters had established their homes in the tunnels and holes left by their insect predecessors.

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A spider has made its home in the coffin wood.

But it is this fragmentary, dare I say, “shabby” state, that allows these pieces to reveal information that their more pristine coffin counterparts conceal beneath perfect layers of plaster and delicate gold leaf. In this state, it is possible to take small wooden samples from multiple areas of the coffin, peer into the coffin joints, and document the tool marks that are usually invisible on a complete object. This helps us to understand what materials were used for coffin construction and provides a glimpse into the movements and choices of carpenters whose stories are otherwise so often lost and overlooked in favour of the history of kings and conquerors.

To identify the species of wood used for each object, I make thin sections of the wood samples and examine the wood anatomy under a microscope. Each tree has a unique profile and looks pretty spectacular up close!

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A microscopic image of one of the wood samples from the coffin – it is sycomore fig!

When working in the field, I set up a mini laboratory for my analysis. This season I was lucky enough to be working from the tomb of Horemheb, surrounded by some of the most beautiful reliefs I have ever seen.

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The field laboratory in the tomb of Horemheb.

I analyzed many of the coffin pieces as well as the tenons and dowels – pieces of wood that are used to hold the different parts in place. Ultimately, I found that all the larger parts of both coffins were made of sycomore fig, while the dowels and tenons were made of either acacia or tamarisk. This assortment of woods tells us that the carpenters selected from trees that grew locally. They picked sycomore fig because it is easy to work and grows big enough for coffin planks – and has a special religious significance connected to the goddess Nut. They joined the pieces with woods that are harder and better for holding everything in place – they knew their craft, and selected their woods carefully.

Next I looked for evidence of tool marks. Tool marks are incredible because they represent movements, frozen in time. They can connect us to the craftspeople who built these objects more than 3000 years ago! Take a look, for example, at just the foot of this coffin.

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The foot of the anthropoid coffin.

Or rather, take a look at the back – the part that would usually be covered up by additional pieces of wood and paint.

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The back of the foot of the anthropoid coffin. The blue lines highlight the saw marks, the orange arrow indicates chisel marks.

Across the back, we can see saw and chisel marks, the first rough cuts used for the initial shaping of this piece. Then the carpenters drew red lines to mark out where they would cut the dovetail joint that would hold the pieces of wood together – but later they made a correction and cut it smaller, leaving a faint red line behind on the wood, parallel to the final cut (an ancient instance of measure twice, cut once!).

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The back of the foot of the anthropoid coffin. The red arrow points to the red paint guide line. The green arrow points to the chisel marks in the dovetail joint.

To cut the joint, they started with saws, and a tiny knick at the top shows that they cut just a tiny bit too far, but no matter, that would be covered up later.

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A knick at the top of the cut shows where the carpenters sawed slightly too far.

They then took chisels to remove the last bit of wood at the back of the joint, since their saws would not fit in this space. These final rough chisel marks are left unfinished, again destined to be covered up by later construction steps. All these choices and movements are visible to us today only because time and termites ultimately undid the carpenters’ hard work. While these coffins may not seem beautiful in their rough and crumbling state, to me they are perfect reminders of the non-royal Egyptian people who left their marks on history in amongst the coffin wood.

Saqqara diary

Week 1 (28 February – 7 March 2023): A Relief for Us All

By Lyla Pinch Brock

The weather is cool in the morning out here in the desert. We are working in the shadow of the step pyramid, sombre under a sky of cotton-batten clouds. Unlike our Egyptian colleagues, the team members who flew in are not usually here in February, so they are bundled up against the cold in scarves and down jackets. We slap our hands against our sides to keep warm. But in no time at all, we are peeling off our layers and warming ourselves in the sun like lizards.

My name is Lyla Pinch Brock, and I am wearing my epigrapher hat for the next two weeks — that is, I will be a copyist. I am one of the senior team members, having been with the crew for almost twenty years. One of our jobs this season is to record the series of reliefs we found last season lining the walls of a chapel in the tomb of Panehsy. I say ‘our’ because it’s decidedly a group effort.

First on the scene is one of our dig directors, Daniel Soliman, whose main job is to expedite our work. He organises a table and chair for me and then gets two of the workmen, ‘Assam Sayed and Rafa’at ‘Eid to carefully remove the wooden hoarding and soft styrofoam we installed over the carved stones last year to protect them from the wind and rain. What with world weather patterns changing, we don’t know what to expect. Our inspector, Hanna Donqol is on hand to check the stones’ condition and take some photos.

The hoarding is carefully lifted away. We breathe a collective sigh of relief to see everything is still in good condition. However, there is some minor spalling of the stone and we all agree that some conservation is in order. Thankfully, the Friends of Saqqara foundation has offered to fund it.

The reliefs show offerings being brought before the tomb-owner, including a hapless bull so fat that his hooves have splayed under his weight. In the retinue are priests and officials rendered in small scale, while on either side of a doorway Panehsy the owner is depicted full-size, majestically accepting his due. He wears fine sandals and a pink pleated robe and holds two staves of office. He held the important post of steward of the temple of Amun during the first part of the reign of Ramesses II, around 1279-1259 BC.

I get to work. I will trace the reliefs using the excellent photographs taken by Nicola Dell’Aquila, and then collate my drawings against the walls. Once they are all checked, they will be inked in for publication. Two days later I am happy to see our conservators arrive – Basma Zaghloul Esmael and Yousef Hamadi ‘Awad, who did such a superb job last year cleaning and conserving our tiny ‘family’ chapel with its exquisite miniature statues that I had the pleasure of recording with funding from the Amarna Foundation.

This season we will also work on a large, highly-detailed and very important stela of the tomb owner which is part of the larger chapel. It was found last year on the last day of work, confirming the archaeologists’ truism: the best thing is always found on the last day.

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Week 1: Lyla Pinch Brock working in the tomb of Panehsy (foto: Nicola Dell'Aquila)

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Week 1: Stela in the tomb of Panehsy (photo: Nicola Dell'Aquila)

Opgraving Sakkara 2023

Opgraving Sakkara 2023