Excavating the old kingdom. From Khafre’s Valley Temple to Governor’s City at Balat

Before the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette started to clear the Serapeum at Saqqara in the balmy autumn of 1850; before Howard Vyse and John Shae Perring joined forces to study the pyramids of Giza and Giovanni Battista Caviglia began to dig out the Great Sphinx there; before Bonaparte sent Louis Costaz, Jean-Baptiste Fourier, François Jomard, Le Père, and many other scientists and savants to the Nile Valley on an information-gathering mission unmatched to this day; and before curious visitors and amateurs in ancient times and our own tried to follow in the footsteps of the pyramid builders—the Egyptians themselves became archaeologists and restorers in order to save their most important royal necropolis. During the New Kingdom King Ramesses II himself commissioned his son Khaemwase, who at the time was supervising the Ptah priests at Memphis, to restore the royal necropolis at Saqqara. Thanks to him, Mastabat Faraoun and the precinct of King Unis were saved from oblivion.

In the wake of Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt, both individuals and great nations (usually acting through their consuls) threw themselves into archaeological pursuits. Since this chapter is devoted to French achievements, the first name to mention is that of Auguste Mariette, who systematized Egyptian archaeology. Mariette undertook his first real dig at Saqqara; however, it was his discovery of the Serapeum and the Hemicycle of Greek Philosophers, and not an Old Kingdom monument, that won him lasting fame. These discoveries brought Mariette new authorizations to excavate and, in a curious twist of fate, the following year he unearthed the tomb of Khaemwase himself in the Serapeum! By comparison, Mariette’s clearance of the valley temple of Khafre at Giza—after postponing the project for want of funds—may seem insignificant, especially since he just missed one of the most beautiful finds the site contained, the statue of King Khafre with the Horus falcon (fig. 28).

Things began in earnest in 1857, when the viceroy of Egypt, Said Pasha, on the advice of Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps, persuaded Mariette to return to Egypt. The imminent arrival from France of Prince Napoleon—and assuredly also the need to replenish the stock of khedivial antiquities, exhausted since 1855, when Archduke Maximilian of Austria received gifts from the pasha—made Said look warmly on the idea of appointing Mariette to guarantee the smooth progress of excavations and preserve Egypt’s archaeological patrimony. The fortunate excavator of the mastaba of Khufu-ankh at Giza and of Mastabat Faraoun at Saqqara thus became mamur of antiquities in 1858.

For nearly a century France was intimately associated with the Antiquities Service, and the work sites of the two nations overlapped to some degree, at least with regard to the professional staff. This meant that excavations were more often undertaken in response to the urgency of the situation than as part of a rational scientific program. The starting point for excavation was, in essence, a list of sites likely to furnish important documentation, which the decipherer of the Rosetta Stone, Jean-François Champollion, and others after him had drawn up. That is why French archaeologists—beginning with Mariette—turned their attention to such later sites as Tanis, Karnak, and Deir el-Medina, where work continues to this day. These huge complexes have produced the most spectacular finds, which are often better known to the general public than Old Kingdom monuments, apart from some exceptional pieces.

As for the Old Kingdom, in 1859 Mariette found the prize he had missed several years earlier in the valley temple of King Khafre. The marvelous statue of the king that he unearthed is today one of the jewels of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (fig. 28). Other great French finds are, at Saqqara, the mastabas of Ti and Ptah-hotep, the extraordinary serdab statues of Ti and Ra-nefer, the Sheikh el-Beled (fig. 34), and the Scribe in the Louvre (fig. 33); and, at Meidum, in the mastaba cleared by Albert Daninos, the splendid statues of Ra-hotep and Nofret (fig. 31) and the celebrated painting of geese from the tomb of Itet (cat. no. 25). All of these marvels are today in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Among the excavations conducted by the Antiquities Service at Abydos perhaps the most notable are those in the southern area: the temples of the kings Seti I and Ramesses II and of the god Osiris. But important, too, was Mariette’s discovery of the Sixth Dynasty tomb of Weni with its important biographical inscription. After Mariette’s death in 1881, his successor at the Antiquities Service, Gaston Maspero, saw to it that his colleague’s manuscript on the mastabas of the Old Kingdom was published. This early compendium inspired interest in a more systematic excavation of the Memphite necropolis.

Chance decreed that the first Pyramid Texts were not found until 1880, at Saqqara (fig. 78; cat. no. 177). Terminally ill, Mariette had, as Pierre Montet said, “this final satisfaction.” But it was Maspero who excavated the funerary chambers of King Merenre I and then the other pyramids with these funerary texts. Overnight some monuments that had previously seemed quite disappointing to archaeologists gained a new interest. Research at the royal Old Kingdom cemeteries proceeded apace, and soon the private cemeteries around them began to yield a wealth of treasures. To this day the great Old Kingdom sites, especially the Memphite cemeteries, continue to reward research, at mastabas as well as at the pyramids of kings and queens, about whom fresh discoveries are continually being made.

After Mariette’s death the activities of the Antiquities Service increased in scope, and new organizations appeared on the archaeological horizon. Among these, the French Institute of Near Eastern Archaeology (IFAO) was to play a primary role, often taking charge of excavations that the Antiquities Service had neither the opportunity nor the time to carry out. And the task sharing was not restricted to French circles. Although they were at the mercy of international events, the Egyptological institutions of many nations—including Great Britain, Germany, the United States, and Italy—cooperated in the international archaeological endeavor.

Until 1886 Maspero was especially involved in excavating the pyramids at Saqqara with funerary inscriptions—the monuments of Unis, Teti, Pepi I, Merenre I, and Pepi II—and he published the results in the Recueils des Travaux from 1882 onward. The other French archaeologists concentrated their attention on Saqqara as well. Notable among them was Jacques de Morgan, who cleared a number of large mastabas in 1893, including the tombs of Mereruka and Ka-gemni. Victor Loret took over in 1899, making great discoveries at the first queen’s pyramids uncovered at Saqqara, in the vicinity of the complex of King Teti. Loret pioneered systematic research at Saqqara by working in sections, just as Morgan had done for the Middle Kingdom structures at Dahshur—with extraordinary success.

In 1901 the IFAO began work on the pyramid at Abu Rawash. The director, Emile-Gaston Chassinat, identified the owner as Djedefre, the third king of the Fourth Dynasty, and uncovered splendid fragmentary statues of the pharaoh, which are today preserved in the Louvre (cat. no. 54) and at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Until the eve of World War I Chassinat tried to clear the pyramid’s funerary chambers, but without success because the technical means at his disposal were insufficient. Not until 1995 did the IFAO resume the work at Abu Rawash, this time in collaboration with the University of Geneva, the Swiss National Foundation for Scientific Research, and the Supreme Council for Egyptian Antiquities.

Another royal site was the step pyramid at Zawiyet el-Aryan, probably belonging to King Nebka. Morgan discovered the entrance in 1900 and A. Barsanti excavated the crypt in 1904. Although they are outside the scope of this exhibition, the very rich Predynastic excavations of Morgan at Naqada, Emile Amelineau at Abydos, and Montet at Abu Rawash must be mentioned here.

Except for the re-excavation and restoration of the Great Sphinx undertaken by Emile Baraize in 1925, during the first decades of the twentieth century the Italians, Americans, and Germans (succeeded by the Austrians) divided the work at Giza among themselves. At Saqqara, Cecil Mallaby Firth and then James E. Quibell led digs until 1936, the year when Jean-Philippe Lauer assumed the directorship of the Djoser-complex excavations. The stunning results he achieved there—at the Southern Tomb and in the burial chamber of Djoser, as well as in the reconstruction of some of the chief elements within the complex—are well known. Also at Saqqara, during the same period but in the southern part of the site, we must mention the work of Gustave Jequier, whom our Swiss colleagues will pardon us for associating with French achievements. Jequier completed the excavation of Mastabat Faraoun and also cleared the funerary complex of Pepi II and those of Pepi’s queens, Neith, Iput, Wedjebten, and Ankhes-en-pepi. His work at two Thirteenth Dynasty pyramids, one belonging to King Khendjer, must be mentioned, although they are outside the compass of this exhibition. At Dahshur in 1925 Jequier began to clear the Bent Pyramid of Snefru, a task finished some twenty years later by Alexandre Varille, Abdel Salam Hussein, and Ahmed Fakhry.

The years immediately before and after World War II were marked by great discoveries. The royal necropolis at Tanis is perhaps the most memorable example, although this Late Period site postdates the Old Kingdom by many centuries. Closer to the subject at hand is the fruitful cooperation in the 1930s between Polish and French teams. Together they excavated the Old Kingdom cemetery at Edfu.

After the 1952 Revolution the archaeological landscape became truly international and collegial. The years that followed were successful ones for the Antiquities Service, and in 1954 a truly extraordinary discovery was made at Giza. Featured in a special issue of the Revue du Caire, the royal boat unearthed from a pit south of Khufu’s pyramid excited worldwide attention.

The international campaign conducted during the 1960s to save the Nubian monuments from the rising waters of Lake Nasser forced into the background long-term archaeological excavations that would otherwise have been considered of primary importance. Among the Old Kingdom sites to which French teams return year after year, Saqqara must be cited first of all. Lauer still works at the precinct of Djoser, and a museum is being set up on the site, the focus of which will be a presentation of the results of discoveries made by this senior colleague of ours during the course of a long and distinguished career.

At South Saqqara in the early 1960s, working within the framework of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), affiliated with the University of Paris-Sorbonne and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the IFAO, Jean Sainte Fare Garnot and then Jean Leclant and his associates resumed excavation of the royal funerary complexes. Today directed by Audran Labrousse, the mission continues research in the complex of Pepi I, which is now completely cleared and open to the public. It is no exaggeration to say that almost every year the team manages to discover a new pyramid belonging to one of the queens of Pepi I, and with it a significant amount of new information.

Analysis and reconstruction of the Pyramid Texts continues, and at some pyramids the work has reached completion. Publications based on this endeavor, and a new edition of the Pyramid Texts as well, are in preparation at the IFAO. Labrousse continues to oversee many collaborative projects with his Egyptian colleagues, notably in the area of the pyramid of Unis.

Also at Saqqara, the Musée du Louvre has started excavations at the Unis causeway, under the direction of Christiane Ziegler. Initially, the team found vestiges of the mastaba of Akhet-hotep still in place; later, a wealth of material was uncovered, as this area proved to be particularly rich in Old Kingdom tombs. The splendid achievements of Ziegler’s team thus far offer hope of many new discoveries to come.

I have already mentioned in passing the excavations resumed in the mid-1990s at Abu Rawash. There the IFAO, in association with the Supreme Council for Egyptian Antiquities, the University of Geneva, and the Swiss National Foundation for Scientific Research, has cleared rubble from Djedefre’s funerary chambers and begun to survey and conduct a preliminary examination of the neighboring cemetery and elements of the royal complex.

Since 1976 the study of the Old Kingdom has undergone, at least as far as French research is concerned, a renaissance as unexpected as it is spectacular, thanks to digs conducted in the oases of the Western Desert by the IFAO, at sites chosen by the late Serge Sauneron. Today Georges Soukiassian is digging at Balat, the Sixth Dynasty town of the governors of the Dakhla Oasis. This virtually unique site bears comparison only with settlements at Elephantine brought to light by the German Archaeological Institute. Balat has produced data that would be impossible to find in the heavily populated Nile Valley. Within the vast necropolis the mastabas of the local governors still thrust their enormous bulk against the sky, and thousands of administrators’ tombs dot the landscape. A town site exists, too, with civic buildings and with palaces that are remarkably well preserved.

Meanwhile, the IFAO continues to disseminate the findings of French Egyptologists through monographs, excavation reports, complete publications of monuments, and paléographie studies of inscriptions from such sites as Giza and Saqqara.

Necessarily incomplete, this overview cannot do justice to the scope of present-day research on the Old Kingdom. To give a more accurate idea of these endeavors, it would be necessary to take into account the work of the Egyptians themselves, and of the Germans, Americans, Italians, Czechs, British, Australians, and other national groups. Although this chapter is dedicated to the French achievements, it is nevertheless appropriate to emphasize how internationalized the field has become, with teams from many countries, of course, but also with new methods—such as colloquia, study groups, and so forth—that facilitate the analysis of data accumulated from many discoveries and serve to open new avenues of study.

Nicolas Grimal