Treasure Trove of Discoveries Unearthed in Egypt’s Saqqara Necropolis
The vast archaeological site of Saqqara is located about 30 km (19 mi) south of modern-day Cairo in Egypt and it’s home to the earliest and first documented pyramid, the Unas, the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser, the Serapeum, and the burial place of the sacred Apis bulls, ranging from the early Old Kingdom to the Graeco-Roman era.
In December 2018, The BBC reported archaeologists at Saqqara had discovered an “exceptionally-well preserved” burial chamber, the Wahti Tomb, containing mummified animals and holy birds, and now, the Tourism and Antiquities Minister in Egypt, Khaled El-Enany, announced on Saturday via Instagram a new discovery at the Sacred Animal Necropolis in Saqqara near the highly-decorated tomb of “Wahti and the cachette” of sacred birds and animals, reports Egypt Today.
Microcosmic Clues to the Macrocosm
The Minister of Tourism and Antiquities uploaded photos of himself with excavation workers in Saqqara on his official Instagram account showing his team exploring a “burial well” located next to the Wahti Tomb. The archaeologists found a passage that led to a chamber housing five closed limestone sarcophagi and four wooden coffins, all with human mummies inside, from the Late Pharaonic Era.
Another one of the ancient Egyptian sarcophagi unearthed at the Saqqara archaeological site, being inspected by an archaeologist. (Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)
In one of the niches a huge human shaped wooden sarcophagus contained inscriptions in bright yellow ink and around it was a large collection of statues and pottery including “365 Ushabti statues” crafted in faience and some featuring hieroglyphs. A small wooden obelisk measuring 40 cm (16 inches) in height was also discovered, and when this artifact is interpreted with the ushabtis themselves, they together offer an insight into ancient Egyptian cosmology.
Farmers of the Otherworld
The ushabti, shabti or shawabti was a funerary figurine used within the death rituals of ancient Egyptian religion, and they were placed in tombs among the sacred grave goods intended to serve the deceased in the afterlife. The ritual application of ushabtis originated in the Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2600 to 2100 BC) and most often they were depicted with a hoe over their shoulders carrying baskets on their backs.
Shot of the many ushabti figurines found at the Saqqara archaeological site. (Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)
Archaeologists think these symbols insinuate a belief that the statuettes would magically come to life and farm for the deceased, and according to Richard Taylor’s 2000 paper ‘ Shabti, Ushabti, Shawabti, Death and the Afterlife’, hieroglyphs typically appeared on the legs asserting “their readiness to answer the gods' summons to work.”
What is special about the newly discovered collection of ushabti is that there are 365, one for every day of the year. An article on Ancient Egypt Online explains that while the lunar calendar was used to calculate dates for religious festivals and rituals, day to day life was structured around the solar calendar of 365 days per year. Each year was comprised of three, four-month seasons, which were named after significant events related to their agrarian lifestyle.
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Pyramidion of the Solar Cycle
Obelisks, or pyramidions, were often erected outdoors as monuments or landmarks symbolizing the power and consistency of the Sun god Ra. However, during the religious reformation of Akhenaten, the symbol was interpreted as a petrified ray of the Sun god Aten (sundisk) representing the god’s existence within the stone body of the structure.
Archaeologists and Khaled El-Enany inspect the ancient Egyptian obelisk and another figurine unearthed at the Saqqara archaeological site. (Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)
Obelisks were generally erected to commemorate individuals or events, honoring the gods for the associated successes and according to Ancient Encyclopedia, the ancient Egyptians started creating obelisks at some point in the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2613 BC) prior to the construction of the Step Pyramid of Djoser (c. 2670 BC).
It is thought that the earliest obelisks served as a kind of training for working in stone on monumental projects, which was a necessary step toward pyramid building. But in the context that the new 40 cm (16 inches) high model was discovered, amidst 365 ushabti, it represents the Sun, and its associated god, the mighty Ra.
The secretary and counselor of the Sun god Ra was Thoth, who according to Ancient Egypt Online was “the One who Made Calculations Concerning the Heavens, the Stars and the Earth” and “the Reckoner of Time and of Seasons” - the “inventor of the 365-day calendar,” which replaced the inaccurate 360 day calendar.
Together, the 365 ushabti and the obelisk represent the days of the solar year and the Sun of this world, and it is beautiful to see them surrounding the coffin of someone who is now under the light of another Sun, in another place and time.
Top image: Archaeologists investigating one of the ancient Egyptian sarcophagi unearthed at the Saqqara archaeological site. Source: Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
By Ashley Cowie
Taylor, R. 2000. "SHABTI (USHABTI, SHAWABTI)." Death and the Afterlife: a cultural encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, California.