The Tomb of Nefer at Saqqara in Egypt

The Tomb of Nefer at Saqqara in Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

The large chapel in the tomb of Nefer at Saqqara in Egypt

Nefer was the "Supervisor of Artisans" and the "Director of Choir Singers" during the 5th Dynasty during the reign of King Niuserre. His tomb is located at Saqqara near Cairo in the sector of the Pyramid of Unas. The tomb is hewn into the rock of an ancient quarry cliff facing Unas' causeway. Together with Nefer, eight other family members were buried in his tomb, including his father, Kaha, who held the same title of "Director of Singers", and his mother Merietes who was a Priestess of Hathor.

Flloorplan of the tomb of Nefer at Saqqara

This tomb has a structure similar to the nearby tomb of Irukaptah. It is a relatively simple tomb consisting of a courtyard, a long, L-shaped offering hall with a serdab at the southern rear. It is oriented North-South, with an entrance on the northern end. This tomb is particularly interesting for its numerous classic, very colorful reliefs typical of this Old Kingdom Period.

Apart from certain areas on the north wall and the alcove, the chapel is cased with good-quality limestone slabs, joined together by a reddish mortar, and its ceiling is painted in red. The walls are decorated at the top by a border of a black zigzag frieze. Below, the paintings are finished off with a black line, a thin band which is neither decorated nor painted, and finally by a wide black band which extends to the floor. The walls, decorated in sunken relief, are enhanced by well-preserved paintings.

The painting, of which mineral pigments formed the main component, was mixed with bone or fish glue, used as a binder, which was then mixed with water before being slapped onto the walls. They depict human figures with the faces in profile, frontal eyes, the shoulders and torso also in a frontal view, and the waist in three-quarter, while the legs are in profile.

Much of the eastern wall in the tomb of Nefer at Saqqara

Much of the eastern wall in the tomb of Nefer at Saqqara

On the left hand, eastern wall of the large offering chamber, there are five registers framed by scenes of Nefer and his wife, along with a dog, at each end. The northern scene is inscribed vertically in front of the group of characters who look to the right. The caption tells us that the deceased inspects fishermen, fowlers and scribes of his estates of Lower and Upper Egypt. He observes the activities which make his lands fructify as well as the goods (such as cattle) of his funerary estate, which ensure his eternal supply.

Shepherd tending goats around a tree in the tomb of Nefer

Many of the remaining scenes reflect agricultural topics and daily life. However, they begin in the upper registers with a priest holding a papyrus roll and a folded cloth. He is probably in charge of the funerary cult. He apparently receives payment for these duties from the eldest son of the deceased. Behind the priest are shepherds that tend a flock of goats under the watchful eye of a supervisor, who leans on a long stick. Both the men and animals are gathered around two trees. One of the shepherds on the right holds a knife and kneels down to slay a goat that hangs from the first tree.

Below this scene is one of fishing with nets. At the top of this scene, two groups of fishermen, all wearing loincloths, have their backs turned to each other. Each group holds a rope tied to the two extremities of a net, obviously laden with a large catch of fish, judging from their efforts.

Workers harvesting and carrying papyrus for use in making a boat

Next, in the top register, several scenes take place in the marshes. Here, men who are mostly naked are busy gathering papyrus, which will be used to build a reed boat, while birds soar overhead. Below, a group of oxen, with lyra-shaped horns, led by a calf and its mother, emerge from the papyrus marshes. The animals, painted white with black or red spots, are led by a shepherd who carries over his shoulder a stick from which hangs a reed mat and his water flask.

Next, we find an inspector who reads from a report on a papyrus scroll, who is followed by two scribes who sit on the floor in front of a writing chest and palettes. They hold in their hands reed brushes. This scene appears to depict some sort of judicial proceeding, as guards with sticks hold two men. Below this scene in the third register we find men preparing and baking oval loaves of bread on an open fire, which is in turn followed by another scene of fowling.

The upper register portrays men supporting themselves on a pole while treading grapes

The lower registers of the east wall depict four major topics. The first is the production of wine, which begins with four men wearing short kilts with a triangular panel at the front, who are treading grapes inside a large vat. They hold onto a beam above, to prevent them from slipping. Behind these men are piled containers that will hold the must (grape juice). Next there is an interesting scene of a wine-press where a baboon appears to be working alongside the men. Four men turn in the opposite direction two large poles, each one secured to the extremity of a linen bag full of pulp, and extract the juice which flows freely into a large vase.

Next, we find three dwarfs and other men making jewelry, followed by a festive scene dominated by a lady clad in a long dress. Three other young women, also in long dresses, clap their hand while dancers also perform.

One of the large sailing ships in the tomb of Nefer

They are followed by the guests, including four men who bring lotus bouquet and geese. In the bottom two registers of the wall are more agricultural scenes together with depictions of boatmen jousting in the marshes. Also two beautiful sailing boats adorn these scenes, with the first under full sail heading south.

A niche opens at the south-eastern end of the tomb's eastern wall. Here, we find several different scenes depicting grazing goats and carpenters. Some of the carpenters are at work building a wooden sarcophagus and checking the fitting of the lid, while further on, two more polish a bed frame with feet carved in the shape of bulls legs. Another carpenter appears to polish a large door bold.

Carpenters cut down a tree to use for funerary equipment, as depicted in the tomb of Nefer

The niche scenes conclude with a scene depicting shepherds, carrying provisions such as water skins and reed mats, who face a kneeling herdsman watering a calf from a yellow earthenware vessel. Another calf drinks from a similar red ochre vessel. While passing in front of the animals, one of the shepherds pats the flanks of the second calf.

On the southern end wall of the tomb, on the left-hand side, Nefer is shown in an offering scene in which he is seated with his wife squatting beside him while scribes and a dwarf record the offerings. They include desert animals, cattle and grain. On the right, priests present offerings while a group of musicians and dancers perform. On the right-hand side of the wall there are three apertures to the serdab and above these, painted but un-carved, Nefer is shown seated on a low backed chair at a table before a list offerings. His wife sits at his feet. On the lower part of the wall the deceased is shown this time leaning on his staff and overseeing more offering-bringers and musicians.

Nefer and his wife face his false door

Nefer's brothers Seniotef, Ihi and Werbau are also depicted. Here, a double flute player and a flutist, sitting on the floor, accompany a singer seated opposite them. The western right hand wall of this long chamber reveals a series of six false doors dedicated, beginning at the northern end, to his brother Seniotef and his sister-in-law, Khnemt, anther brother and his wife, Werbau and Khentkawes, respectively, Nefer's mother, Merietes, his father, Kaha, Nefer's son, Khenu, and at the southern end of the wall, himself.

The false door of Werbau is adorned with a palace facade and depicted on the lintel is Werbau, between his wife mother, symbolically opening the door. At the very top of the false door Werbau and his wife, Khentkawes are shown at the funeral banquet. Above the false door belonging to Nefer's mother, Merietes, are depicted four offering-bearers represented in relief. The first burns incense, the second brings a goose and a gazelle, while the last one leads a calf.

Scene above the false door of Nefers mother, showing offerings

An example of one of the false doors in the tomb of NeferFalse Door dedicated to Nefer's brother, Werbau

Top: Scene above the false door of Nefers mother, showing offerings
Below Left: An example of one of the false doors in the tomb of Nefer
Below Right: False Door dedicated to Nefer's brother, Werbau

However, the false doors of of Nefer and his son, Khenu, take up a full third of this wall. On Nefer's door, he is shown clad in a leopard skin and seated at a table bearing loaves of bread. There are also ewers as well as cups and a basket in the shape of a boat. Smaller tables also bear loaves of bread, cakes, fruit and vegetables. Above these scenes and to the right are two registers that show more offerings, and a third that depicts slaughtered cattle. These scenes are flanked on each side by a palace facade, and on the outer door jambs of the false door are carved offering formula.

The top two and the bottom left hand figure whear leopard skin vestments and are perhaps sons of Nefer. All of the figures are described as inspectors of the singers

Also depicted on the western wall are three men clad in leopard skin vestments and wearing short wigs. All of these men are described as inspectors of the singers, and may be Nefer's sons. The tomb contains nine (some references refer to eleven) burial shafts leading to small burial chambers and in one, a perfectly preserved male mummy was found within a sarcophagus, but it is unclear whether this was the body of Nefer. A wooden box was also found in a burial shaft containing a cursive account of linen in the year of the sixth census. Other finds include an offering basin of Kaha and a wooden model boat.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Art of Ancient Egypt, The Robins, Gay 1997 Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-00376-4
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
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Illustrated Guide to the Pyramids, The Hawass, Zahi; Siliotti, Alberto 2003 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 825 2
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