The monuments of Egypt are the heritage of everyone around the world.

— Zahi Hawass

The Tomb of Sa-Iset at Dashur

The 19th century was a time of great discoveries in Egypt. However, at that time there were no standard methods of mapping and recording sites, so important things were lost. Excavators would record that they found a tomb, but not describe the exact location, so later scholars would not be able to find them easily. A good example of this is found at Dashur, the pyramid site just south of Saqqara.

Jacques de Morgan, in his excavations at Dashur in 1894-1895, discovered an important tomb just south of the 12th Dynasty cemetery of Amenemhat II. The tomb is located between the pyramid of Amenemhat II and the black pyramid of Amenemhat III. The tomb owner chose a good location, on a small mound that overlooks the whole area, including the 4th Dynasty pyramids of Snefru and the royal cemetery east of the red pyramid of Snefru.
De Morgan, in his excavations, did not publish the details of this tomb, or the architectural plan, but he did find and record a group of funerary stelae, which are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. These four funerary stelae represent the owner of the tomb, a man named Sa-Iset. He is shown in each stela seated in front of an offering table with a list of offerings as well as his name and titles. These stelae are inscribed in bas-relief and they show some of the best 12th Dynasty inscriptions, and perhaps some of the best of the whole Middle Kingdom, because the inscriptions are beautifully done and the details of the faces and bodies of the figures are exquisite.
Some of the titles of Sa-Iset are recorded in each of the stelae. These titles include that he was the higher prince, the chief of the lector priests, a scribe of the sacred books, holder of the seals of the south, sole friend of the king,overseer of the treasury, overseer of the pyramid city, vizier, judge, and overseer of the six chapels. Some of these are very prestigious titles, showing that he was a very important man in his time.
In 2006, the archaeological team at Dashur led by Husseini began to work in the area midway between the pyramids of Amenemhat II and Amenemhat III in order to rediscover this tomb. We knew of the existence of the tomb, but not its exact location or many details about it. Rediscovering the tomb of Sa-Iset was an important goal, as it could reveal more information about the reign of Amenemhat II and the Middle Kingdom.
The tomb was found soon after excavation work began, and it was evident that the superstructure had been destroyed. Hundreds of stone blocks were found scattered all around, and these can give us an idea about the architectural plan of the superstructure and chapel of the tomb. It was built of fine white limestone and the walls were inscribed with false doors that included lines of hieroglyphic inscriptions including the name and titles of the tomb owner. These titles matched those of Sa-Iset recorded on his funerary stelae in the Egyptian Museum. However, the inscriptions inside the tomb are incised on a much bigger scale, to match the size of the exterior of the chapel and the ten large blocks found. We also found smaller limestone blocks and pieces that came from the interior of the chapel that show the decoration. Here we found a scene of the family of Sa-Iset giving him offerings. With him are his brothers, sisters, father, mother, and grandmother and grandfather. These scenes are very interesting because they are unique to this tomb.
The substructure of the tomb starts with a ramp that slopes down into the north-facing entrance. The western wall extended for about 10 meters and is 86.5 cm thick. It is made of five courses of mudbrick laid in steps. The eastern wall of the ramp is about 11.70 meters long. The ramp slopes down until it reaches two thick walls that were constructed in order to protect the lower part of the tomb. The ramp leads into a tunnel lined with mudbrick before the antechamber and burial chamber. At some point the sealed antechamber was opened, perhaps by ancient thieves or possibly during de Morgan’s excavations. The sealed chamber has a vaulted ceiling lined with large limestone blocks. This rectangular chamber is about 5.5 meters long and 2 meters wide. The floor slopes down, and we can see the remains of the mortar used between the blocks, which may indicate that the tomb was finished in a hurry.
The first vaulted chamber leads to the burial chamber. It is a small room, about 3.4 meters by 1.75 meters, and the sarcophagus occupies the entire floor. The huge lid of the sarcophagus is made of green diorite. On the eastern side of the room are two small niches carved into the lower half of the wall. The southern niche contains a canopic box of green diorite, that is cracked and broken in places. The northern niche is empty. The vaulted ceiling of the burial chamber is lined with limestone, and the limestone walls are decorated with Pyramid Texts in vertical rows colored in green. Each row contains the name of Sa-Iset at either the beginning or the end of each spell. These Pyramid Texts are similar in style to those in the 5th Dynasty pyramid of Unas at Saqqara, which means that the artist in the 12th Dynasty who decorated Sa-Iset’s tomb was likely imitating the texts from Unas’ pyramid.
It is interesting to note that both chambers with vaulted ceilings were lined with limestone, while the first chamber in mudbrick did not have a vaulted ceiling. This tomb has a unique architectural style; it is the only tomb at the site of Dashur, and even in the area of Memphis, that has this plan. The use of Pyramid Texts is also very unusual. The tomb was left unfinished, perhaps because the burial was completed in a hurry. We can see that some of the red artist’s lines used to define the inscriptions still remain. Also, the lid of the sarcophagus is still very rough and was not polished. The walls of the first vaulted limestone chamber were also never finished, they are not polished or decorated, but bear the remains of tool marks.

We are planning to continue the excavation of this tomb, and in January, we hope to open the sarcophagus. De Morgan attempted to open it, but it proved impossible, as the lid of the sarcophagus is just touching the walls. If the lid were lifted, it might scrape the walls and damage the texts. Therefore I consulted with the archaeologists at Dashur as well as Reis Talal. Reis Talal comes from a famous family that is known for being able to move any heavy object.  They worked with myself and Miroslav Verner on the tomb of Iufaa at Abusir. They also worked with me to move the lid of the sarcophagus of the governor of Bahariya Oasis, and six months ago, we lifted the lid of the sarcophagus inside the subsidiary pyramid of Teti. Reis Talal presented me with his plan for lifting the lid of the sarcophagus of Sa-Iset. He will open a shaft outside the tomb and bring in construction equipment that will hold a weight. The weight will be about 15 tons, one and a half times the weight of the sarcophagus lid, to counter-balance the lid. In this way, the lid will be lifted slowly by the weight outside the burial chamber. We will move very slowly and carefully; the process will take at least 5 days. I am really looking forward to opening the sarcophagus and revealing what is hidden inside the sarcophagus of this important man, the vizier Sa-Iset. 


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