The 1st Dynasty Tombs of Saqqara in Egypt

The 1st Dynasty Tombs of Saqqara in Egypt

by John Watson

Spinning Disks from the tomb of Hemaka No. 3035 at Saqqara

Saqqara is one of the best known, as well as oldest, dynastic necropolis in Egypt. It is popular among tourists, but many of them may never visit, or even know about its oldest royal tombs. These are what were once believed to be the 1st Dynasty tombs of the largely legendary founders of Egypt, but their burials lack the grandeur of other monuments in the vicinity, and now many scholars believe that these tombs, while dating to the 1st Dynasty, were probably those of high officials rather than the kings themselves.

Recreation of a 1st Dynasty Tomb at Saqqara

As early as 1912, a large, "archaic" cemetery was known to exist in north Saqqara, though it did not receive any serious attention until 1932, and it was still another twenty years before many of these results were published. The lack of enthusiasm for these excavations was probably due in no small part to the perception that they were poor "collector's sites". However, after some scholars came to believe that these were the tombs of Egypt's 1st Dynasty pharaohs, they received more attention, afterwards followed by much debate because the same rulers also had tombs at Abydos in Upper Egypt. One theory was that one of these sets of tombs, either at Saqqara or Abydos, were cenotaphs, or ceremonial tombs. All of these tombs in both locations were severely plundered during antiquity, most were at least somewhat destroyed by fire, and there were no bodies found belonging to any of the early kings. However, further research seems to indicate that those at Saqqara were not the tombs of kings, but rather their highest officials, irregardless of the fact that some of them were larger and more elaborate than the royal tombs at Abydos.

A 1st Dynasty Tomb at Saqqara

There is evidence for three distinct types of tombs in Egypt during the 1st Dynasty, largely distinguished by the class of people who built them. Those belonging to royalty or high ranking officials were large, shallow rectangular pits hewn out of the bedrock and divided by cross-walls into a series of chambers. There was a central chamber that was the actual burial chamber that housed the sarcophagus surrounded by provisions on pottery and alabaster dishes; chests and boxes containing clothing, jewelry and games; and funerary furniture. The surrounding chambers were storerooms for various reserve provisions for the afterlife. One was usually reserved entirely for the storage of food and another for wine jars stacked in rows and sealed with clay.

The whole trench was roofed over with wooden beams and planks and surmounted by a superstructure with recessed paneling. The superstructure was hollow and was also divided into a series of chambers which contained the less valuable funerary items. Most of these tombs also had boat-pits for funerary barges.

The second class of tomb was built by retainers and artisans. Constructed in long lines adjoining one another close to the royal tombs, their occupants were probably dependents in the household of the king, or craftsmen in the various arts and industries. It is very possible that they were buried near their kings in order to serve him in death as they did during his life. These tombs are oblong pits or chambers where the bodies, wrapped in linen, were placed. Around them dishes containing food and jars of wine, as well as the tools of their trade were also included in the burial. The pits would then be roofed over with timber and a low, rectangular superstructure was build of rubble.

A map of the 1st Dynasty Tombs at Saqqara

The poorest of the lot, the working class and peasant people, had very simple graves not much different than those of the Predynastic Period. These tombs consisted of an oval or oblong pit where the body was placed, sometimes on a reed mat, in contracted position and surrounded by their earthly possessions. These pits were then roofed with branches and matting to hold the mound of sand and rubble that was piled above it.

Limestone Ostracon of a bull and baboon from the tomb of Hemaka No. 3035 at Saqqara

For the royalty and wealthier classes, the principal materials used in the tombs were wood and sun-dried brick The wood was mostly imported from Lebanon, while the bricks were a mixture of Nile River clay and chopped straw or sand. However, limestone and granite, even at this early stage, were sometimes used for flooring, roofing, retaining walls or doorways.

The 1st Dynasty royal monuments at Saqqara are, for the most part, nearly twice as large as those of Upper Egypt, measuring an average of 50 to 60 meters in length. They also seem to be more complex structures.

Tomb No. 3357 from the Reign of Hor Aha

The tomb no. 3357 dating to the reign of Hor Aha is the earliest known mastaba of the Saqqara necropolis. The monumental aspect of this tomb, indirectly emphasized the king's power. It was discovered in 1936 and although many of the excavations of these 1st Dynasty royal tombs were not published until much later, this one was published in 1939.

The mastaba was surrounded by two plain enclosure walls about 1.2 meters apart, with the outer one having a thickness of about .75 meters and the inner one .55 meters. The enclosure walls were preserved to a height of no more than a half meter, and both were covered with mud plates and faced with lime wash.

The substructure of the tomb was divided into five separate chambers, the central one being the tomb chamber where the sarcophagus was placed. These, and other chambers of the substructure were roofed with wooden beams running east-west that in turn supported planks set perpendicular to them. The roof was then surmounted by a superstructure which contained twenty-seven rooms. The central five rooms in the superstructure were built directly above the five main subterranean rooms. The outer walls of the mastaba were decorated with recessed paneling

Some dummy buildings and a large brick boat pit outside the enclosure wall to the north were also included in the tomb complex. One should note that, at this early juncture, there was no cult center such as a mortuary temple included within this structure.

The contents of this tomb consisted mostly of wooden labels and clay jar sealings, though there was also hundreds of small pottery containers with the royal name of Hor Aha inscribed on them in the form of a serekh, along with details of their content and origin. The clay jar seals covering wine and food containers were imprinted using engraved wooden cylinders. These, and the small engraved wooden and ivory labels attached to various funerary commodities provide our main source of written evidence at the beginning of the dynastic period. Other items found within the tomb included pottery rhino horns, as well as pieces of furniture, flint tools, palettes and stone vessels.

In the underground chambers, human remains from different individuals were discovered, prompting a few early scholars to theorize that the king (this was then presumed to be a royal tomb) took some retainers to the grave with him, but this is not the only instance in these 1st Dynasty tombs that evidences human sacrifice.

Tomb No. 3471 from the Reign of Djer

Plan of Tomb No. 3471 at Saqqara

Emery discovered the tomb No. 3471 dating to the reign of Djer in a far worse state of preservation than that of the one dating to the reign of Hor Aha. While the tomb is almost the same size as that of No. 3357, it is more elaborate in design, and the subterranean chambers are hewn considerably deeper into the bedrock. The burial chamber is also larger and deeper than the surrounding storerooms, and there is no passage to them. The substructure had been set afire, probably not much later than the 1st Dynasty, perhaps to hide its plunder by thieves. Within the mastaba superstructure were 29 magazines that only contained scattered and fragmentary stone and pottery vessels.

There was a vast collection of copper vessels, tools and weapons found in this tomb, mostly in one of the seven subterranean chambers, including a fine, gold handled flint knife. The seventy copper ewers, bowls, dishes and jars were worked using a hammer, and the spouts and handles were joined by copper rivets. They represented seven distinct types of containers, and their forms were similar to the stone vessels of the first two dynasties. There were also hundreds of copper knives, saws, adzes, hoes, chisels, piercers, bodkins, needles and rectangular plates that may have originally been contained in wooden boxes. other items included copper, leather and ivory bracelets, game pieces, scrapers, a few ivory vessels and some fragments of wooden furniture. Finally, there were some roughly rectangular stone palettes, including one with a figure of the king raising a mace in his hand above an enemy, perhaps Libyan, and to the right the forepart of a lion.

Tomb No. 2185 from the Reign of Djer

This tomb, cleared between 1912 and 1914 and published by Quibell, is attributed to the reign of Djer, but was never considered as a Royal tomb. Its superstructure was badly destroyed. The subterranean chambers were found to contain stone vessels, copper and flint tools and clay seal impressions with the serekh of Djer. Tomb No. 2171H from the Reign of Djer This small pit, never under consideration as a royal tomb, was discovered by Quibell beneath a 2nd Dynasty Tomb (2171). It contained many stone vessels, some furniture fragments, flint, beads and two labels inscribed with the name of Djer.

Tomb No. 3503, Possibly from the Reign of Djer

Plan of Tomb No. 3503 at Saqqara

Tomb No. 3503 is situated immediately north of Tomb No. 3504, and it may very well be a royal tomb belonging to Mer-Neith, who may have been the consort of Djer and could have even ruled Egypt for a short time. In this tomb, the substructure pit measures 14.25 by 4.5 meters and was divided into five chambers. Again, the central one was the burial chamber, which measured 4.80 by 3.5 meters in size. When discovered, it contained fragments of a wooden sarcophagus and on its base was found a few human bones. Old foil remains were found scattered about the chamber. The burial chamber also held the remains of a funerary meal, pottery vessels near the walls, traces of wooden and basketwork chests, and the fragments of wood canopy poles.

The superstructure of this tomb contained nine niches on the longer side and three on the short ones, some of them still retaining traces of paint. Inside there were 21 magazines that were well preserved but plundered, though some were collapsed or had been set on fire soon after being plundered. Many of the stone vessels found in the tomb have been dated to the reign of Djer, and at least two seal impressions were found that alternated the serekh of Djer and a serekh-like device containing the name of Mer-Neith. This device was surmounted by a Neith standard rather than that of Horus.

This tomb was surrounded by an enclosure wall, and twenty to twenty-two subsidiary burials. Within the subsidiary burials, some boat models were found, and on the occupant of one was a copper blade that had apparently been strapped to the individual's ankle. Another subsidiary burial contained a wooden box that may have contained some sort of copper tool, perhaps for surgery. On the north side, a brickwork casing for a funerary boat was discovered beyond the subsidiary burials. Note that the boat containment was entirely above ground, rather than dug into a pit.

Tomb No. 3504 from the Reign of Djet (Possibly belonging to Sekhemka-Sedj)

Burial Pit in Tomb 3504 at Saqqara in Egypt

Tomb 3504 was discovered by Emery in February of 1953 and its excavation was promptly published the next year. This northern tomb indicates a definite advance in both design and building techniques in comparison to the actual Royal tomb of Djet at Abydos. It is considerably larger than those at Saqqara dating to the reigns of Hor Aha and Djer.

Here, the burial chamber is flanked by four large storerooms to the north and south and a further series of smaller subsidiary chambers to the east and west. The substructure measured 22.6 by 10.2 meters and the central chamber was dug to a depth of 3.1 meters. The other chambers of the substructure were dug about one meter shallower than the central chamber.

One curious feature that Emery noticed on the south wall of the burial chamber was a recessed niche just off the floor. At the foot of this recess was a brick offering platform that still contained the skeletons of two gazelles. The central chamber appears to have been originally paneled with wood which was inlaid with strips of gold plate. In earlier tombs, colored reed mats were stuck to the walls in the manner of wallpaper.

Clay bull heads with real bull horns line a low bench around the mastaba

Above, the superstructure was vast, divided into 45 magazines. This mastaba structure had a niched facade on the outside, completely washed in white limestone except for the innermost panel of the large niches which were painted red. Around the facade of the mastaba was built a low bench that surrounded the whole structure. Upon this bench were placed 300 clay modeled bull's heads that were adorned with real horns.

Within the superstructure a large amount of stone and pottery vessels were found, along with many clay seal impressions on jars, flint, furniture, game pieces, arrow heads, a god ring and a wooden label. Nine more labels were found in the burial chamber and a few others in the surrounding underground rooms. The tomb also contained other items carved in ivory, including a wand inscribed with the serekh of Djet, followed by the name of Sekhemkha-Sedj, a tiny lion and the legs of a bull.

Emery's View of Tomb No. 3504 at Saqqara

Within the burial chamber itself, the bones of a human adult thought to be about 26 years old were discovered, along with considerable broken wooden furniture, pottery and stone vessel fragments, sandals, toilet sticks, copper tools, leather, gold inlay and objects of unknown use.

The mastaba was completely surrounded by an enclosure wall, about .95 meters thick, and beyond it was a single row of 62 subsidiary burials dug in two continuous trenches that were compartmentalized by mudbrick walls. One trench runs about the western and southern sides while the other is on the northernmost three quarters of the eastern side. On the north side there is instead another wall. Each of these subsidiary tombs has its own separate superstructure composed of a small, rounded topped, rubble filled mubrick mastaba. They measure about 1.70 by 1.45 meters, and less than half a meter in height. Surprisingly, despite the fact that many scholars believe this to be a privately owned tomb, many believe that these retainers were slain at the time of the owners burial. These burials include those of servants, attendants, a dwarf and some dogs.

Interestingly, the tomb was blundered and burnt not long after the owner's burial, and there is evidence of reconstruction and repairs under the reign of Qa'a. The burnt burial chamber was cleared and reinforced by a 1.2 meter thick mudbrick wall.

Tomb No. 3035 from the reign of Den (Possibly belonging to Hemaka)

Plan of Tomb No. 3035 at Saqqara in Egypt

Clearly the reign of Den must have been the most prosperous of the 1st Dynasty, marking an important step forward not only in funerary architecture, but also in the progress of the State of Egypt as a whole. Tomb number 3503, originally thought to belong to Den, was discovered by Firth, but it was Emery who completed its clearance and published the tomb in 1938.

The tomb is very large, measuring 57.3 by 26 meters. It has a central burial chamber measuring 9.5 by 4.9 meters with a floor dug to a depth of nine meters. The burial chamber was surrounded by three rooms separately dug in the rock and accessible through short doorways at the north and south ends of the western side of the central chamber. Access to the substructure of Den's tomb was gained by a descending stairway that started about nine meters to the east of the superstructure and led directly into the burial chamber. Prior to this burial, the body and the funerary equipment had been lowered through the roof before the completion of the superstructure. This passage was sealed at intervals by stone blocks. They were supported by props until the time came to lower them down perpendicular grooves cut in the side walls. The shaft and the stairway were then presumably filled with rubble and provided with an outer layer of brick.

The superstructure of the tomb contained forty-five rooms, some of which were found intact and containing a large variety of funerary equipment, including vessels made of alabaster, schist and crystal, including a fragmentary schist bowl in the form of a feather. Tools, weapons and games were also discovered, including hard stone game disks, one of which was inlayed with a hunting scene. Other items included a limestone slab with a bull and a monkey painted in black ink, fragments of wooden boxes, bags and textiles, ivory fragments of the leg of a bull and nearly 500 arrows of five different types. The ownership of the tomb is now believed to be evidenced by various ivory labels and seals bearing the names and titles of Hemaka. These items represent the largest single collection of early dynastic objects ever discovered, and while the dishes and vessels were utilitarian, they were produced in elaborate designs that required carving techniques and ingenuity of composition. Furthermore, two rolls of uninscribed papyrus found in this tomb are thought to be the earliest evidence of paper manufacture.

A limestone slab decorated with a scene consisting of two standing kings found in Tomb No. 3507

Tomb No. 3507 from the reign of Den (Possibly belonging to Queen Herneith)

Though Queen Herneith was probably a wife of Djer, she may have died during the early reign of Den. Though dated to the same reign as Tomb No. 3035, it is probably an earlier example, lacking the stairway found in that tomb. her tomb was the last mastaba of the 1st Dynasty the Emery cleared near the eastern escarpment of the necropolis.

The substructure of this tomb consists of a pit, measuring 5.25 by 3.15 meters and dug to a depth of 4.75 meters, with a ramp on its north side and two roofs. The lower roof was built 2.5 meters from the bottom of the pit, while the upper one is only just above ground level. The southern part of the lower roof has two rock-cut pilasters on which a limestone lintel was laid. The lintel is decorated with a row of hammered out, crouching lions.

This lintel supports a stone roof covering the southern part of the burial chamber where pottery and stone vessels were found. In the northern part of the burial chamber the remains of a wooden coffin were found, along with some human bones. Set into small brick niches, small dishes of food, mostly ox bones, were laid out around the coffin. There were also the remains of jewelry made of Faience, Lapis Lazuli, Carnelian and gold, as well as broken bracelets of ivory and stone. Other items included gaming pieces and flint. Various seal impressions contained the name of Den as well as that of Her-Neith.

A limestone slab decorated with a scene consisting of two standing kings found in Tomb No. 3507

The superstructure of this mastaba is the best preserved of all in this group, at some points reaching a height of 2.5 meters. The interior of the superstructure is divided into 29 chambers by crossing walls about .65 meters thick. As with several other tombs of the 1st Dynasty, the facade was niched and there is a low bench around it, upon which was placed clay bull's heads with real horns.

The niched walls of the superstructure of Tomb 3507

The tomb was protected by an enclosure wall with a gateway measuring 1.65 meters wide, near the southern end of the eastern section. Between the enclosure wall and the mastaba the ground was paved in mud painted green. Buried beneath this entrance at a depth of .65 meters, Emery excavated the tomb of a saluki dog which acted as the guardian of Hernieth's sepulcher. There were no other subsidiary tombs found around the mastaba.

Tomb No. 3038 from the Reign of Adjib (Anendjib, Andjyeb, Enezib) (Possibly belonging to Nebitka)

An Old view of of Tomb No. 3038 at Saqqara

This tomb was at first thought to be that of Adjib, the first pharaoh to be mentioned in the "Table of Sakkara", but it may have been started during the reign of Den and only finished during that of Adjib. It was cleared in 1936, but World War II delayed its publication. Actually Firth had already worked on the superstructure and burial chamber in 1931, but he failed to recognize the peculiar character of this time.

The tomb was built in three construction phases. In the first, it measured 22.7 by 10.55 meters. North and south of the central pit, but at a higher level, there were two magazines. Surmounting the the northern were nine brick, tubular grain bins with pottery caps and an outlet at their base. The outlets were blocked by stone and covered with

Nebitka's seal impressions. From the east, a stairway led, after a portcullis block, to the burial chamber. Another shorter stairway, just south of the first one, led to a magazine above the burial chamber.

Tomb No. 3038 at Saqqara first phase plan

This tomb was of great importance because it broke with prior architectural features. It displayed three constructional phases. In the first two phases of its construction, the tomb featured a stepped superstructure which was considered a prototype of Djoser's Step Pyramid. The eastern side of the superstructure's facade was vertical, while on the other three sides there were eight steps looking like a truncated pyramid. The stepped structure was 2.3 meters high, and faced with fine mud plaster.

In the second phase of construction, the southern half of the top terrace was raised and a wide brick terrace was added around the superstructure, which reached the size of 12.55 by 35 meters (or more).

Tomb No. 3038 at Saqqara second phase plan

In the last phase of construction, the tomb was provided with the typical palace facade, and the superstructure was partially filled and subdivided into magazines. In the middle of the north-south facade, a stairway gave access to the superstructure. Thus this tomb reveals strong similarities in design and proportion with Djoser's Step Pyramid, the step was hidden by the final construction.

Tomb No. 3038 at Saqqara third phase plan

Various items were discovered in this tomb, including seal impressions, thirty-one stone vessels, flint implements and a few pottery vessels.

Tomb No. 3111 from the Reign of Adjib (Possibly belonging to Sabu)

Only a few meters east of Tomb No. 3111, Emery found this tomb in the early part of 1936. It had no stairway, and the superstructure was completely filled with sand mixed with fragments of pottery jars.

The pit measured 10.45 by 6 meters and was 2.55 meters deep. It was divided into seven compartments, including four north of and two south of the main burial chamber. Although plundered during antiquity, the burial chamber was found to be in good order. The remains of a wooden coffin were found, with the skeleton of the tomb owner within. There wee also stone and pottery vessels, two boxes of flint knives, arrows, a few copper tools, two ox skeletons and the fragments of a schist bowl.

This tomb was never apparently considered to be a royal burial, but an intact subsidiary burial was found in front of the third rampart north of the western facade of the mastaba.

Tomb No 3505 from the Reign of Qa'a (Ka'a) (Possibly belonging to Merka)

Plan of Tomb No. 3505 at Saqqara in Egypt

This is an impressive mastaba originally thought to belong to Qa'a. The tomb itself measures 65.2 by 40 meters, while the mastaba measures 24.15 by 35.1 meters. It is one of four mastabas found at Saqqara, each of which show marked progress in architectural design. They have the usual recessed paneling around the brick superstructure, but colored geometrical frescos were worked on them in imitation of reed work. Here, a bench surrounded the niched walls like that of Tomb No 3504, and gain there were clay bull's head with real horns placed on top of the bench.

A stela was found near a niche of the eastern faade revealed the name and titles of the proposed owner, Merka. Other important findings from this tomb were the bases and feet of two wooden statues found in a niche of the northern temple. In addition to the stone vessel fragments and mud jar seals, an incised vessel with the name of the mysterious king Seneferka and a sealing which could not be attributed to any known ruler from the period were also discovered.

Notable is the true proto-funerary temple found to the north of the mastaba, which resembles the later north temple of the Djoser's Step Pyramid Complex. It consists of numerous chambers and corridors. What religious thought and symbolism lay behind the various architectural innovations is not clear, but architectural evolution undoubtedly went hand in hand with religious and political events.

Both the mastaba and the funerary temple were contained within an enclosure wall, but note that this tomb has no subsidiary burials belonging to servants or retainers.

Tomb No. 3500 from the Reign of Qa'a (Ka'a)

Tomb No. 3500 was a late 1st Dynasty burial, never considered that of a king, found by Emery in May, 1946. Here, there are elements that show a transition toward the tombs of the 2nd Dynasty. This is evidenced by the presence of only one niche on the facade at the south end of the eastern side, whereas the remainder of the mastaba facade is plain, as is the enclosure wall.

Plan of Tomb 3500 at Saqqara

The substructure consists of a large burial chamber measuring 8.1 by 5.4 meters, and one small magazine to its north. The burial chamber was accessed by a stepped passage originating to the east

Above the substructure, the mastaba contained two chambers to the south of the burial chamber and three to the north. The two northernmost magazines were filled with wine jars (on the west) and model clay granaries and jars (on the east).

Few other objects were found within this tomb apart from vessels, some flint blades and seal impressions bearing the serekh of Qa'a, though one may have also bore the name, Sn-Neith, who may have been the tomb's owner.

There is also evidence of four subsidiary burials on the southern side of the superstructure, partly underneath the southern part of the enclosure wall. These all have "leaning barrel vaults, which are the earliest known examples of brick vault roofs. Three of the four subsidiary tombs were found intact, and the westernmost of these retained the dead bodies of a middle aged man and perhaps an older woman wrapped in linen within their coffin.

Tomb No. 3038 at Saqqara first phase plan


The list of tombs do not include all of those at Saqqara dating to the 1st Dynasty, but they do provide a good mix of the more important ones. These tombs must remain somewhat of a mystery. For example, evidence is not very available about why some scholars believe the subsidiary tombs in many of these tombs are believed represent human sacrifices of people taken to the grave with the tomb owner, and why, if they are private tombs, the owners had such a power over human life. Furthermore, many of these tombs are grander than their royal counterparts of the same reigns in Southern Egypt. These bits and pieces of evidence clearly indicate why some of the 1st Dynasty Saqqara tombs were originally thought to be those of kings.

Even now, some work continues in the region of Saqqara, that may someday yield more knowledge about Egypt's earliest historic period. Though not tourist attractions, these tombs are very important to our understanding of this period.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt) Clayton, Peter A. 1994 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-05074-0
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Jill Kamil Guides: Sakkara and Memphis, The Necropolis and the Ancient Capital Kamil, Jill 1996 Egyptian International Publishing Co. - Longman ISBN 0-582-78380-1
Monarchs of the Nile Dodson, Aidan 1995 Rubicon Press ISBN 0-948695-20-x
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Tomb and Beyond, The: Burial Customs of Egyptian Officials Kanawati, Naguib 2001 Aris & Phillips Ltd ISBN 0 85668 734 0