Excavations in Saqqara 2018

In mid-March 2018, a research team traveled to Egypt for the annual excavation campaign at the village of Sakkara. The team consists of several scientists and is led by Dr. Lara Weiss, curator of the Egyptian collection of the National Museum of Antiquities and Dr. Christian Greco, director of the Museo Egizio, Turin.

Lara Weiss and her team write a ‘digging diary’ every week:

Opgravingsprojecten Opgraving Sakkara Lara Weiss

Onderzoek Opgraving Sakkara 2017

Week 1 (16-23 March 2018)

by Lara Weiss:

“This year the Leiden-Turin team only received all necessary permissions to excavate in Sakkara at the very last moment. That is why the entire team had not yet flown to Egypt. Suppose you do not get permission in the end and have already spent 100s of euros on tickets…

First in the field were the deputy field director Paolo Del Vesco from Turin, our new bone expert from Leiden University Sarah Schrader and I. The idea is to renew our cooperation with Leiden University and then soon to be able again to allow graduate students to come to Sakkara. A second aim is to set up a research plan and hopefully be able to invite some PhD students to Saqqara soon. Egyptologist Miriam Müller will also soon join the team for the same reason. In addition, two new surveyors of the 3D Survey Group of the Politecnico di Milano have started to measure the tombs  and help us to measure and scan the results of the upcoming excavations.

We expect an exciting season in which the new team hopes to better understand the area to the north of the tomb of Maya. This is an area in which the ancient Egyptians built several small chapels in the Ramesside period and where also later many activities took place. When cleaning the area where we stopped working in 2017, we found already yet another embalmer’s cache, i.e. a pit used to bury mummification materials. Our most recent cache was found empty and its contents potentially burnt except for two linen bags probably filled with natron. The numerous embalmers’ caches in the area north of Maya suggest a post-New Kingdom use of the area as a burial site. This could mean either reuse of existing New Kingdom or earlier tombs, as well as shallow pit burials next to those tombs such as the nice body covered by a mat and bead net which Maarten Raven had found in his area south of the tomb of Meryneith in 2017. Sarah has now studied the bones and suggests that it was a young boy or girl of the age of about 15, who suffered from bad nutrition and illnesses, and who had probably spent his or her life with hard work such as carrying heavy bags. We cannot tell whether it’s a boy or girl, since the typical female features of the pelvis are not yet identifiable at that young age.

On Saturday 24.03 we expect to begin with the excavations of the nice Coptic occupation layer we found in 2017, this year supported by household archeology specialist Miriam Müller.”

Week 2 (23-30 March 2018)

”Its our third week in Egypt, the second in which we are actually excavating. Miriam is carefully clearing the hill north to our two small Ramesside chapels, in an area that we call the Coptic occupation layer, i.e. not actually a house, but the remains of some occupation. Particularly interesting was the find of the dump of some workshop materials among which two flint stone knifes, a whetstone and a polishing stone. Underneath the first limestone walls showed. This means were are on our way to Ramesside age.

In the meantime the Milano 3D Survey Group has finalized the scan of the tomb of Maya and is now continuing with the tomb of Tia and Tia. The results are amazing. Read more about their work next week!”
– Lara

by Miriam Müller and Sarah Schrader:

Miriam and Sarah have successfully started working at Saqqara, coming from Leiden University as specialists on human bones and Egyptian archaeology and material culture. Sarah and Miriam were very happy to accept the invitation by the Leiden-Turin mission to look for a potential cooperation between the museums and the university with the possibility to bring bachelor and master students to Egypt to study the archaeology and material culture of ancient Egypt at such an exciting place!

In her role as new assistant professor at the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University, Sarah specializes in the analysis of ancient human bones. For the Saqqara excavations she has now started analyzing the bones that were excavated last season. So far, she has studied several child burials. There are no obvious diseases present on the bones of these children, which may suggest that they died suddenly. Sarah also found evidence for mummification – a plug in the ear of a skull, which appears to be very intentionally placed.  Linen was often placed in the ears of the deceased so that the evil spirits would not enter the body. Sarah has a lovely workspace in the Tomb of Horemheb, where the skeletal material is conveniently stored.

Miriam has joined the excavations in her capacity as new lecturer in Egyptian archaeology, art and material culture at Leiden University. She specializes in household archaeology and the contextualization of finds within their archaeological contexts in order to study behavioral patterns, use and reappropriation of ancient landscapes – a new approach that has also been implemented in the new research agenda of the Saqqara excavations, generously funded by a VIDI grant under the direction of Lara Weiss. Miriam has started documenting an area north of the tomb of Maya, which had yielded dense occupation layers in the previous season. A detailed stratigraphy from the Ramesside use of the area in the form of burials with chapels and associated shafts to the leveling and repurposing of this landscape by probably a Coptic community presents itself. The excavations of these layers will hopefully shed more light on the nature of the occupation and use of this highly significant area at the end of the 18th and beginnng of the 19th dynasty in later periods.”

Week 3 (30 March – 6 April 2018)

“Another week of excavation has been completed. We still have three weeks of work ahead but already interesting results were reached. We extended the excavation area of about 100 sq. metres to the West of the two small Ramesside chapels found last year. The extension of the area also allowed us to remove another section of the old retaining wall that was built to prevent the sand from flowing back in the late 1980s after the excavation of the tomb of Maya. This revealed more of the thick mudbrick wall found last year immediately to the north of Mayas external wall, and most likely pertaining to another New Kingdom tomb. We must also mention the careful stratigraphical investigation of the interesting Late Antique occupation levels, plastered installations and walls carried out by our Leiden university team member Miriam Mller and the excavation and recording of new Late Period embalming deposits by Nico Staring.

All the archaeological documentation this year is hugely benefiting from the participation in the Dutch-Italian archaeological fieldwork of the 3D Survey Group. The group is an Italian interdisciplinary team of engineers, architects and archaeologists based in Milan working and carrying out research on cultural heritage. In particular, the team is specialized in 3D survey techniques and modelling applied to cultural heritage and environment. Read more about their work in the digging diary!”
– Lara

by Francesco Fassi and Alessandro Mandelli:

Since 2010 the Milan team has been developing an informative system for the management of the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano, the main cathedral of Milan, based on the 3D survey of the whole monumental building. At the same time, members of the team have been involved in the 3D survey of the archaeological excavation of the underground station ‘Municipio’ in Naples, where photogrammetric survey techniques were thoroughly tested. The 3D Survey Group is also the main research group of the ERC-funded project LIFE (Living In a Fringe Environment), directed by Dr Corinna Rossi, focussing on the interdisciplinary study of the Late Roman settlement of Umm al-Dabadib, located in the Kharga Oasis (Egypt’s Western Desert). The team is now developing a new line of research and investigation focussing on creating an informative system specifically dedicated to archaeological excavations.

The Group’s main task at Saqqara is to survey the concession and the excavation…. but, as simple as it may seem, is nevertheless done in an innovative and ground-breaking way providing 3D metric and accurate representations nearly real-time during the excavation and 2D orthorectified images immediately after the daily fieldwork. All this information are then uploaded in the new Saqqara information system which will represent an extremely useful tool not only during the recording phase on the field but also, at a later stage, to re-elaborate the information, share it with pottery, human remains, wood or architecture specialists in a collaborative environment, and disseminate it to the wider public.

During the first week of work, the existing fixed points to which the topographic survey is tied were double-checked using the expedition’s new total station. Then two separate activities started: the overall 3D survey of the already excavated tombs, and the detailed 3D survey of the area that is being excavated, using photogrammetry for all the different contexts identified.

The aim of the general survey of the already excavated tombs is also to fix the absolute and relative position of each monument, previously surveyed independently from one another. By the end of this third week, the Milan team completed (in order) the survey of the tombs of Maya, Tia and Tia, Horemheb, Pay and Ray, Meryneith and Ptahemwia . The photogrammetry has been preliminarily elaborated by our laptops during these afternoons of work back in the dighouse, and added to the general survey of the expedition’s excavation area.

The photogrammetric survey of the excavated contexts is being carried out with a resolution of 0,5mm, in order to fully grasp the composition of the various deposits and structures that are being exposed and removed during the fieldwork. Recording the contexts with a 3D georeferenced web-based informative system is a complex and innovative challenge and Francesco, Alessandro and Paolo have been spending long evenings discussing the best and most efficient way to structure the information that are being collected, with the support of the other members of the 3D Survey Group working from Milan. This part of our work is giving us the chance to carry out not only an interesting fieldwork, but also a challenging piece of research on the field together with our colleagues of the Museo Egizio. In this respect, the 3D Survey Group wishes to thank the co-directors of the mission, Dr Christian Greco and Dr Lara Weiss, for the invitation to join their fieldwork, and looks forward to continuing this interesting and fruitful collaboration.”