|The New Kingdom tombs
It is certainly difficult to accept (it still is, in fact, for some) that a site so neglected, so foul-smelling (thanks to decayed cat mummies), so (apparently) ruined, and sometimes so dangerous (though less so now, after our consolidation work) was once a major cemetery of Memphis, the major city of Egypt in the New Kingdom, a major period in history if ever there was one. It is also difficult to accept that at this site, archaeologists are discovering, one by one, tombs of high officials, known or unknown, tombs related to the so-called “tombs of the nobles” at Thebes and Amarna, and that some of them are better-preserved than it seems at first sight, and that in them, we encounter remarkable decoration, and that they sometimes contain abundant and exceptional funerary furnishings. And, finally, it is difficult to accept that the archaeological interest of the monuments and the objects excavated, as well as the historical interest of the evidence brought to light are, and will continue to be, of greater and greater significance. For our excavations have entailed astonishing historical results, especially in that they oblige specialists to make major, sometimes radical, changes in our perspective on the New Kingdom, including the Amarna Period.
Some thirty years ago, most of these tombs were completely unknown, as were several of their owners. For the most part, they are subterranean, or in part subterranean, tombs of a whole series of major personages of the New Kingdom, who were buried in the principal cemetery of Memphis during Dynasties 18 and 19. From their external appearance, with their entrances piercing the flank of an escarpment, they seem like the equivalent of the “tombs of the nobles” at Thebes, to which they are analogous in certain respects, while different in others. Of course, it had been known for some time that there were such New Kingdom burials, that is, rock-cut tombs, at Saqqara, but it had been assumed that they were less important than the contemporary tombs constructed elsewhere at Saqqara, especially those south of the causeway of Wenis. Moreover, these rock-cut tombs, that is to say, tombs that were mostly dug and laid out in the rock, were quite similar in their structure, despite some notable differences, to those which contributed to the glory of Thebes, and like the latter, they were rich in information, historical and otherwise.
Archaeologically, these tombs are all the more interesting in that they display sometimes important differences among themselves. While most were essentially dug into the rock, some had, in front of them, a part constructed of fine white limestone (called “Tura” limestone, from the name of the quarries located on the opposite side of the Nile). Their plans could also differ, according to the importance of their owner, the period, and so forth. Moreover, their decoration alternates, sometimes in the same tomb, between relief (either rised or sunk, according to tomb, and usually painted) and simple painting. The quality of this decoration is generally quite good, sometimes even exceptional. It must also be noted that our first goal was to find and protect a certain number of tombs so as to demonstrate that these were part of a complex, and we thus most often limited ourselves to excavating the chapels, at least provisionally. Furthermore, we must bear in mind that not all these tombs had been systematically visited in modern times. In a way, we can compare the situation to that of the tombs of Thebes at the beginning of the twentieth century. Exceptional discoveries were therefore not entirely excluded, as we see from the example of the tomb of the vizier and divine father ‘Aper-El. In this tomb, at the price of some years of effort, we found funerary furnishings that seem to have been plundered only in antiquity, and whose qualitative and quantitative importance compares to that of certain discoveries at Thebes many decades ago (for example, the tomb of Yuya and Tuya, the parents of Queen Teye, and that of the architect Kha). At Saqqara, and in the entirety of the Memphite necropolis, this was and remains the only time that such funerary furnishings have been found in the framework of a scientific archaeological excavation (the museums of the world are filled with objects of this period stemming from Saqqara, but they arrived there via, as it were, rather different routes).
But what lends even more interest to the search and discoveries effected by the Mission of the Bubasteion in this small portion of Saqqara is the social importance of the owners of these tombs, all the more so in that some of them had been unknown prior to our excavation of their burials. This is especially true of the high-ranking persons from, for the most part, the reigns of Amenophis (Amenhotep) III, Amenophis IV (better known under his assumed name of Akhenaten), Tutankhamun, and Ramesses II, but also from the reigns of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III, and of Tuthmosis IV, Haremhab (undoubtedly), and Merneptah: that is, from Dynasties 18 and 19. Since certain individuals had been known from one or another mention in a text or inscription, there was no doubt they were buried at Memphis, and what is more, in this apparently insignificant area of Saqqara. And as for those who had been entirely unkown until the discovery of their tombs, their irruption into the world and into history has changed and even upset what scholars had taken to be settled facts and well-established opinions. But, let us remember, it is precisely such change and upset that constitutes the foundation and the greatness of scientific research.
In the case of the Bubasteion, we can cite some results, among others, that tend in this direction. First of all, there is the ever clearer and more justified impression that this necropolis assumed its full importance in the reign of Amenophis III, notwithstanding the existence there of earlier tombs (including that of the chancellor Nehesy, who organized the famous expedition to Punt under Queen Hatshepsut). It was at this time that several major tombs belonging to no less major personages were created at the site, raising the question of whether this was due to the presence in the vicinity of structures (old tombs, sanctuaries, etc.) of historic and cultic importance. We may think of the crown prince Thothmes, eldest son of Amenophis III, who without doubt died before coming to the throne, making way for the future Akhenaten, with all the well-known consequences. Had not Thothmes, like other royal princes before and after him, been high priest of Memphis, and had he not inaugurated the burial of the Apis bulls in individual tombs of impressive appearance? It is not impossible that the importance he and his father attached to Memphis and its necropolis had something to do with this part of the cliff of Ankhtawy.
Far from marking a rupture in the occupation and growth of this cemetery, the Amarna Period, which corresponds to the reign of Amenophis IV-Akhenaten and his immediate successors, is particularly present at the site, as we see from tombs and burials such as those of the vizier and divine father ‘Aper-El and his son, the generalissimo Huy, and that of the nurse of Tutankhamun, Maïa. Other indications show that certain tombs followed the Atenist evolution, more or less, and that there was no genuine rupture. For example, in the autumn of 2002, the French Archaeological Mission of the Bubasteion discovered and excavated the burial of the scribe of the temple treasury of the god Aten at Memphis (and probably also at Amarna), thus making the cliff of the Bubasteion a mine of new information that reopens questions regarding this (all too) fascinating period.
There was thus no real rupture in the importance of the city of Memphis, or its cemetery, from the middle of Dynasty 18- especially from the reign of Amenophis III on - until at least the middle of Dynasty 19. Thebes continued to be the glittering metropolis we well know, especially the religious metropolis, excepting only the interlude of the reign of Akhenaten and his new city of Akhetaten (Tell el-Amarna). Later, the new Ramesside capital in Lower Egypt, Pi-Ramesses, would also shine in the firmament of Egyptian cities. But despite everything, Memphis remained at the center of the land, a royal city, an economic center, a strategic location, a military parade ground, a metropolis of artists and artisans, a meeting place for men and women who came, willingly or otherwise, from the four quarters of the empire to spend some time or to settle permanently, leaving the mark of their customs and their cults. And the cemetery west of Memphis, the dehenet of Ankhtawy, in particular, became more than ever one of the best places in the “Beautiful West” to prepare a tomb and be buried.
Even under Ramesses II, it was there that many high officials chose to spend eternity, in rock-cut or constructed tombs, or in tombs both rock-cut and constructed, tombs worthy of them and their rank. It is thus in the Memphite necropolis and also at the Bubasteion (certainly an anachronistic designation in this form) that we may hope to find new information about this seemingly well-known reign. For those interested in the reign of “Ramesses the Great” (as Ramesses II is sometimes called by those who do not distance themselves from ancient royal propaganda and modern pulp fiction), there is information that can truly change our knowledge here, far from the beaten track of the Thebaid.
It suffices to cite the tomb, or, rather, the chapel (for we have not yet discovered the funerary chambers) of Netjerwymes, alias Parikhnawa (or Pirikhnawa)! Let us forget for a moment the splendor of its decoration and that astonishing work of art, the rock-cut statue representing the Hathor cow and a pharaoh (doubtless Ramesses II himself), and concentrate on its historical information. Is this not the tomb of an important individual about whom we knew practically nothing, who turns out to have been a first-rate diplomat, the principal architect of the peace negotiated with the Hittites, in whose texts he is mentioned several times? With the progressive uncovering of his tomb at the site where the French Archaeological Mission of the Bubasteion is working, and especially with the painstaking study of this monument, an essential aspect of the history of this reign is taking shape. With this tomb and with the others that preceded it, we can no longer write the history of the New Kingdom as we did before.
Furthermore, it is the organization of large construction projects throughout Egypt, the movements of artisans and artists who devoted themselves essentially (as scholars believed until now) to royal tombs, and the close bonds that united the major cities and the major cemeteries, that have now begun to appear before our eyes. For it was men from Deir el-Medina who excavated and decorated the tomb of Netjerwymes, or who contributed to the work. We can even name them: the quarryman Khabekhnet and the sculptor Ken, for example. They themselves were preceded, in the reign of Amenophis III, by other artists, master painters and sculptors, who excavated and decorated a small but exceptional tomb and its chapel. They, too, clearly had close ties to Thebes and its rock-cut tombs, and they must have decorated certain of the most beautiful tombs in that great city to the south. But it was at Memphis, in the cliff of Ankhtawy (and thus at Saqqara), that they chose to have themselves buried, beginning with the most remarkable among them, the master par excellence: Thothmes. With this tomb, with what these artists created in neighboring tombs, and with the masterpieces of those who came to work in this locale some decades later, we can also no longer write the history of New Kingdom art as we did before.
© A. Zivie (partly adapted from The Lost Tombs of Saqqara, Toulouse, 2007)