|The Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara
Saqqara is the necropolis of ancient Memphis, one of the most important settlements in ancient Egypt and the first capital of a united land. As such it is the burial place of many of Egypt’s most important officials and is also the site of the first pyramid – the Step Pyramid of King Djoser (2667-2648 B.C.).
The site is also the burial place of many types of sacred animal, the most important of which is the Apis bull whose resting place, the Serapeum, was discovered at Saqqara in 1851 by Auguste Mariette, founder of what is now the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities. The Apis bull was not, however, the first sacred animal to have been discovered at Saqqara. As early as the arrival of Napoleon’s expedition in Egypt in 1798 the burial site of sacred ibises, referred to by the French as ‘The Tomb of the Birds’ was known and appears on one of the maps published in the Description de l’Egypte.
The ibis burials were a favourite of early travellers to Egypt, who frequently pay much more attention to them than to the Step Pyramid itself. However, over time and with the discovery of other tombs at Saqqara, along with the rise of tourism (as opposed to exploration) the so-called ‘bird pits’ were lost and were not to emerge until Professor W.B. Emery began his work for the Egypt Exploration Society at North Saqqara in 1964.
This work led to the discovery of two ibis catacombs (North and South), a catacomb of Falcons, another of baboons and the burial vaults of the mothers of the Apis bull. Emery’s interest in the area was not primarily the discovery of the animal cults but the location of the tomb of Imhotep.
Imhotep was the chief minister and architect of King Djoser, and as such was credited with the building of the Step Pyramid which remained a source of wonder to the ancient Egyptians throughout their history, as ancient graffiti make clear. In Imhotep came to be regarded as a god of wisdom and learning and as such was closely identified with Thoth, a god of wisdom whose sacred animals were the baboon and the ibis. Hence, Emery searched in that part of North Saqqara where traces of votive pottery, probably associated with the ibis cult, and broken pots used to contain ibis mummies were located.
Emery’s seasons at Saqqara produced failed to identify the tomb of Imhotep, the search for which continues to the present. However, their results were spectacular and added greatly to our understanding of the animal cults at Saqqara.
Tragically Emery died in 1971 whilst working at Saqqara and work on the North Ibis Catacomb was never completed. His successors as Edwards Professor of Egyptology at University College London were Profesors Smith and Martin, both of whom worked on the publication of aspects of the site. Professor Smith and Mrs. Sue Davies are currently producing important volumes on the work there, some of it from Emerys’ time some of it from renewed work in the 1990s. I co-directed some of this work with Professor Smith, and later took on the direction of the project the aims of which were to update, so far as possible, Emery’s work. This involved a statistical examination of the pottery in the Falcon Catacomb and the further exploration of the North Ibis Catacomb. Work on these is currently being prepared for publication.
In 1995, whilst re-clearing the area around the steps to the Falcon Catacomb a cache of votive bronzes was unearthed. A team of conservators from HISAR comprising Siobhan Stevenson, then Tutor in Conservation, and postgraduate Walter Gneisinger worked on the separation of the objects which had corroded together. Subsequently a further Cardiff conservation team comprising post-graduate Panagiota Manti and graduate Jenny Gosling stabilised and cleaned the bronzes, some of which are now displayed in the new Imhotep Museum at Saqqara. The Cardiff Conservators were assisted by our Egyptian colleague Mr. Abdel Aziz Sayed Abdel Rasheed Soltan from the S.C.A.. Other Cardiff graduates – Dorn Carran and James Newboult worked as illustrators whilst Elizabeth Verrinder worked as database assistant. Ms. Janice Coyle from the Cardiff School of Architecture made excellent digital images of the finds.
The involvement of Cardiff students and graduates plays an important part of my work in Egypt. The training provided to our students makes them well exceptionally well placed to contribute to such projects, the results from which then feed back into research-led teaching.
Relevant publications – Book chapters including conference proceedings
2005 Nicholson, P.T.
| The Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara: the cults and their catacombs. In S. Ikram (ed.) Divine Creatures. Cairo: A.U.C. Press 44-71.
1999 Nicholson, P.T., Jackson, C.M. and Frazer, K.J.
| The North Ibis Catacomb at Saqqara: ‘The tomb of the birds’. In A. Leahy and J.Tait (Eds.) Studies On Ancient Egypt in Honour of H.S. Smith. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 209-214.
Relevant publications – papers
2004 Gosling J., Manti, P. and Nicholson, P.T.
| Discovery and conservation of a hoard of votive bronzes from the Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara. PalArch 2, (1) 1-12. (e-journal)
1995 Nicholson, P.T.
| The Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 81, 6-9.
1994 Nicholson, P.T.
| Preliminary report on work at the Sacred Animal Necropolis, North Saqqara, 1992. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 80, 1-10.
2005 Nicholson, P.T.
| A hoard of votive bronzes from the Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara. British Academy Review 8, 41-44.
2004 Nicholson, P.T.
| Conserving bronzes from North Saqqara. Egyptian Archaeology 25, 7-9.
1994 Nicholson, P.T.
| Archaeology beneath Saqqara. Egyptian Archaeology 4:7-8.