Recently I went to Dashur to investigate the tomb of the vizier Sa-Iset and lift the huge sarcophagus lid to discover what it contained.
This tomb was found by Jacques de Morgan in 1890, and the tomb was actually lost for many years, until the Egyptian archaeologists at Dashur uncovered it again in 2006 during survey work at the site.
It was very important that we re-excavate this tomb and open the lid of the sarcophagus. De Morgan found four funerary stelae in the 1890’s, which are currently in the Egyptian Museum. From inscriptions on the stelae and in the tomb we learned that Sa-Iset was a vizier in the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom, during the reign of Amenemhat II.
From his incomplete records, we understand that de Morgan opened the sarcophagus lid, but we wanted to be sure of this, and discover if anything remained inside.
Sa-Iset’s burial chamber has a vaulted ceiling and is inscribed with Pyramid Texts. The style of the burial chamber and the style and color of the hieroglyphs are a copy of the pyramid of Unas, the last king of Dynasty 5. This tomb is unique and provides a very interesting example because it is a Middle Kingdom tomb that has Pyramid Texts inscribed on the walls. The use of Pyramid Texts in a Middle Kingdom tomb is very unusual, as the Coffin Texts were much more popular at that time. Coffin texts were a Middle Kingdom variation of the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, which were popular among non-elite individuals. In the New Kingdom, these funerary texts were adapted to become the funerary books that were inscribed on tomb walls.
Opening the sarcophagus lid of Sa-Iset presented a very difficult situation, as it is 13 tons of rough-hewn granite that is practically touching the walls on all sides. If the lid were not raised carefully, it could damage the inscriptions on the walls. I consulted with the archaeologists on site as well as Reis Talal, who comes from a family well-known for being able to move large objects. He and his brother Ahmed have worked with me in moving heavy sarcophagi for most of my career. He helped me move the sarcophagus of the governor Djedkhonsu-efankh at Bahariya Oasis, and also a sarcophagus lid in the subsidiary pyramid of Teti.
Reis Talal came to me with a plan for lifting the lid, which used a pulley system with a counter weight outside the tomb. Using this, the lid would lift straight up and the walls would be protected. Preparing for this operation took several days, but once everything had been prepared properly, it took only ten minutes to lift the sarcophagus lid. We peered inside, hoping for something amazing, but we found it empty. It seems de Morgan did indeed manage to lift the lid and excavate what was underneath. The important thing to remember is that this tomb is still very valuable, in its unique design and Pyramid Texts, and a complete study will reveal much information about the reign of Amenemhat II and the Middle Kingdom time in which Sa-Iset lived.