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The ancient Egyptians were just like us

The people who lived in Saqqara, City of the Dead in Egypt, died thousands of years ago, but they are not all that different from us. This is what a study by the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, The Netherlands concludes. If you wanted to prove that you had good taste in ancient Egypt then you did not buy a new car, but a beautiful tomb.

The tomb of the high official Maya and his wife Merit is given special attention in the Leiden research study into the Egyptian necropolis Saqqara. It was as long ago as 1829 when the Museum of Antiquities in Leiden acquired the statues of this couple. They are larger than life-size, which is a sign that these were important people. A few years after 1829, the tomb itself was uncovered again by German researchers. After that it was covered with sand again and forgotten. It wasn’t until the 1970s that researchers realized that the statues and the tomb actually belonged together. This is one of the reasons why the Museum has been actively working on excavations and re-excavations in the area. It aims to shed more light on objects from this City of the Dead that have been part of the Museum’s collection for as long as we can remember.  

The VIDI project “The Walking Dead at Saqqara: The Making of a Cultural Geography” takes this research one step further. The project aims to provide new insights into the everyday lives of the people who were buried here during the era of the New Kingdom (1539-1077 BCE). “It is fascinating that when this tomb was built here, the pyramid of Djoser had already been here for some 1300 years,” says Egyptologist Lara Weiss who works for the National Museum of Antiquties in the Netherlands and the University of Leiden (LIAS). “How would Maya have looked at the pyramid and at the tombs of his neighbours? We would like to uncover what life was like in this burial ground all those centuries ago. We want to learn more about people’s lives.”

A Minister of Finance

Saqqara is a very large burial ground of about 7 by 1.5 kilometers in size, located approx. 30 km away from Cairo. The land where teams of archeologists have been excavating for nearly 50 years now is no larger than a ‘postage stamp’, to use the words of Weiss. However, the efforts have been very successful. Currently in close collaboration with Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy as many as 12 to 15 monumental tombs have already been uncovered in the Saqqara, the City of the Dead in the former city of Memphis. Weiss explains: “Now we are keen to find out how our small postage stamp fits in with the larger context of Saqqara.”

Maya was a high official responsible for keeping the King’s treasures safe. “Similar to a Minister of Finance these days”, explains Weiss. One of the pharaohs he worked for was the famous Tutankhamun. Gifts from Maya were found in the pharaoh’s tomb: two small statues of the king with Maya’s name on them. By giving these, Maya became part of the ‘memory culture’ of the King in his tomb,” says Weiss. “He may well have hoped that by giving such a present, he would receive help and favors in return – from the king who died. It was all about giving and taking.”

'But at that time it would have meant enhancing your status – if you presented yourself as a loyal servant to an important person. Come to think of it, perhaps we do have something similar in today’s burial culture?' 

Lara Weiss

Enhancing prestige

It appears that Maya felt very proud that he was allowed to give these small statues to be buried in the pharaoh’s tomb. The pharaoh was his boss, who he had served during his lifetime. Such gifts rarely happened in the history of ancient Egypt. “It may be difficult for us to imagine in our individualist society,” says Weiss, “but at that time it would have meant enhancing your status – if you presented yourself as a loyal servant to an important person. Come to think of it, perhaps we do have something similar in today’s burial culture?”

In ancient Egypt, like today tombs were not only intended for the dead. The people who were still alive were meant to come and visit the City of the Dead. Not only to learn about the people who died, but also to help them on the road to the afterlife. Inscriptions on some tombs asked visitors to donate offerings. “It is useful to look at the offering bearers (i.e. the people who carried the offerings),” explains Weiss. “This says something about the tomb owner’s networks.” Some tomb owners show individual people with specific names and titles, which meant that the person portrayed would be recognizable in the tomb relief and thereby achieve additional status. Other tomb owners only show generic people depicted in their tomb decoration, without name or title. If it was not known who was in the illustration, then the person who died could not achieve higher status from it.

The tombs that date back to the era of the New Kingdom show that the people who are buried here were inspired by earlier tombs. For example, the tomb of Maya’s neighbour has a representation of a boat floating on the water filled with animals and plants. This is a typical tomb motif from much earlier Egyptian dynasties, particularly the Old Kingdom. A tomb relief from another tomb – which has not been uncovered yet – that may well be another neighbour, MeryMery, shows a woman who walks in a group of people attending his burial. This must be MeryMery’s wife who was still alive when he died, conclude the archeologists after reading the nearby hieroglyphs. It seems very likely that the owner of the tomb, MeryMery, wanted to show the world how much his wife was grieving about his death.

The researcher concludes that this is all very human. She emphasizes that we should not try to find complex religious symbolism in everything we see in Egyptian burial culture. “After all, these were people just like you and me, with the same way of thinking. We need to stop acting as if this is all very unusual. Little has changed in the brain and mind of the homo sapiens in the last hundreds of thousands of years”, explains Weiss. “You can compare a row of tombs then to a row of terraced houses now. If we want to impress our neighbours, we buy a new car. The ancient Egyptians showed that they had good taste by decorating their tombs.  


Unfortunately, the Covid-pandemic affected the ambitions of this researcher to do more excavations. Weiss has not been able to visit Saqqara for two years now. However, by analysing the objects that were already found and by asking new questions, the project of The Walking Dead at Saqqara could still make progress in recent years. There is now an exhibition about this project in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden (Sakkara: leven in een dodenstad, 2020 virtuele rondleiding) and also a publication in English, Arabic and Dutch.

Both the exhibition and the book are similar to the goals of the research programme, in the sense that they focus on putting the burial culture in a wider cultural perspective. The researchers studied carefully which religious practices can be found in Saqqara, but also how a burial ground for the dead originated and was developed and which access roads would lead to it. Some people clearly preferred to be buried near people with the same profession, or next to relatives. Others were even buried inside the tomb of an important predecessor – perhaps to achieve higher status that way.  

Another important part of the research and the exhibition are the messages that were passed on by means of the certain illustrations of Book of the Dead spells. “A prominent military general was praised for the large number of prisoners he made during his lifetime, but other texts are more about his family”, explains Weiss. “It’s not all that different these days. The ancient Egyptians were actually very similar to us.”

Text: Edo Beerda
Translation: Christy de Back


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