The discoveries of Saqqara

The discoveries of Saqqara

  • Photograph of excavations with Auguste Mariette.


  • Plan of Ti's tomb at Saqqara.

    MARIETTE Auguste-Edouard (1821 - 1881)

  • The crouching scribe.

  • Apis bull from the Memphis Serapeum.

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Title: Photograph of excavations with Auguste Mariette.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Excavations by Auguste Mariette, Maspero Fund.

Storage location: Institute Library website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Institut de France) - Gérard Blot website

Picture reference: 03-014388 / Ms40623; Fol55

Photograph of excavations with Auguste Mariette.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Institut de France) - Gérard Blot

Plan of Ti's tomb at Saqqara.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Institut de France) - Gérard Blot

To close

Title: The crouching scribe.

Author :

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 54 - Width 44

Technique and other indications: Sculpture in alabaster, limestone, rock crystal, painted.5th Dynasty (c. 2500-2350).

Storage location: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - F. Raux website

Picture reference: 02-013976 / E3023; N2290

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - F. Raux

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Title: Apis bull from the Memphis Serapeum.

Author :

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 126 - Width 176

Technique and other indications: Limestone sculpture, early period (664-332 BC).

Storage location: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - B. Hatalasite web

Picture reference: 88-004986 / N390

Apis bull from the Memphis Serapeum.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - B. Hatala

Publication date: January 2010

Historical context

Located on a plateau west of Memphis, the necropolis of Saqqara is not only the largest in Egypt but also the oldest. Its remains bear witness to the long history of Pharaonic Egypt, from the Ire dynasty until the Ptolemaic era. When Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Alexandria in 1798, this prestigious site was still unknown: only the great stepped pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser emerged from shapeless rubble. In 1842, Karl Richard Lepsius (1810-1884) led a new Prussian mission and made a monumental inventory of ancient Egypt published in the Denkmäler aus Ägypten und Äthiopien ("Monuments of Egypt and Ethiopia") in 1849-1850, with numerous plates relating to the site of Saqqara. On November 12, 1851, he unearthed the Serapeum in Memphis, a discovery that secured him fame. He is particularly interested in the many private burials, to which he gives the name - still used today in Egyptian terminology - "mastabas".

Image Analysis

There are many photos of Auguste Mariette taken on the countless excavation sites he opened in Egypt. On it, he poses on the ramp to one of Saqqara’s burials. He leans on a cane and wears the fez, a hairstyle that orientalizes the famous archaeologist.

During his excavations, he made multiple drawings and surveys, such as this plan of the mastaba of Ti in Saqqarah. In the shape of an inverted L, it follows a very simple plan, oriented north-south: an entrance portico gives access to an open courtyard with pillars; from there, two successive corridors lead to a first room then to the chapel dedicated to offerings and worship. Discovered by Mariette in 1860, this mastaba is a family burial whose rich decoration shows the social rank of Ti, contemporary and close to several pharaohs of the Ve dynasty.

In Saqqara, the Egyptologist excavates a number of mastabas and unearths hundreds of archaeological objects, including the famous Crouching scribe, discovered on 1er November 1850, when he desensitized the dromos (alley leading to a temple) of the Serapeum. Sitting cross-legged, the scribe holds the roll unrolled on his knees with his left hand. He was undoubtedly an important official, judging by the surprising quality of the sculpture, remarkable for the treatment of the face and the body. The original colors and the intensity of the gaze - revealing an exceptional knowledge of ocular anatomy for the time - count for a lot in the force of expression of this statuette.

One of Mariette's major discoveries at Saqqarah is undoubtedly the unearthing, in October 1850, of the Serapeum, the necropolis of the Apis bulls, already spotted in 1847 by the British amateur Harris. Apis is the sacred bull, fertility deity and the living image of the god Ptah on earth. The Egyptians believed he was a reincarnation of Osiris. The Serapeum was said to have been inaugurated by Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1387-1350 BC), and this cult would have lasted until the end of the Ptolemaic period, when Apis was assimilated to the Greek deity Serapis. Near the dromos, Mariette discovered two funeral chapels, one of which yielded this beautiful limestone statue of the Apis bull.


Among the many excavation sites opened by Auguste Mariette in Egypt, the site of Saqqarah is probably the one to which he is most attached. In fact, he had a house built among the ruins. Established in 1877, the non-exhaustive list of tombs he explored there includes more than a hundred burials with the identity of the deceased and his dating. Nevertheless, the Serapeum remains his most beautiful discovery. Towards the end of her life, Mariette is aware that the necropolis is far from having revealed all its secrets to her. He laments this in a letter to Ernest Desjardin, dated October 18, 1880: “I started my career with the Serapeum; I would be very happy if it was through the Serapeum that I could finish it. Unfortunately, I'm afraid I waited a bit late. The fact remains that the excavation of the Serapeum already presents aspects of what will be a great modern archaeological campaign. It is the exploration of a coherent whole, of eminently scientific interest. The objects are neither sold nor dispersed, much less diverted by the Egyptologist, but carefully preserved in the Boulaq museum or the Louvre museum. Auguste Mariette is undoubtedly the founder of militant archeology. He is a pioneer in the preservation of discovered sites and the fight against the looting of Egyptian antiquities. His successor and disciple Gaston Maspero (1846-1916) will be keen to continue the work of the master, in the same spirit. In their wake, many French and foreign archaeologists will continue to explore the necropolis of Saqqarah. Jean-Philippe Lauer (1902-2001) arrived at the site in 1926 and worked there until his death. Several generations of Egyptologists will still find in this exceptional place a privileged field of investigation.

  • archeology
  • Egypt
  • Mariette (Augustus)


Élisabeth DAVID, Mariette Pacha, Paris, Pygmalion, 1997.Marc DESTI (ed.), Catalog of the exhibition Des dieux, des tombeaux, un savant: In Egypt in the footsteps of Mariette Pacha, Boulogne-sur-Mer, 10 May -August 30, 2004, Paris, Somogy, 2004.Gilles LAMBERT, Auguste Mariette, Paris, Editions Jean-Claude Lattès, 1997. Claudine LE TOURNEUR D'ISON, Mariette Pacha ou le Rêve egyptien, Paris, Plon, 1999.Auguste MARIETTE, Voyage in Upper Egypt: between Cairo and the first cataract, Paris, reprint Errance, 1999. Jean VERCOUTTER, In search of forgotten Egypt, Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Gallimard Discoveries” n ° 1, 1998.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "The discoveries of Saqqarah"

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