Book Review: The Lost Tombs of Saqqara

By Andrea Byrnes.  Published on Egyptological, Magazine Reviews, 9th September 2011.

The Lost Tombs of Saqqara
By Alain Zivie. Photographs by Parick Chapuis. Translated from the French by David Lorton.
Published by cara.cara edition, 2007. 151 pages.  55 colour photos.
ISBN 978-2-913805-02-6

The Lost Tombs of Saqqara

The Lost Tombs of Saqqara by Alain Zivie


Consisting of eight chapters, 55 colour photographs and a number of maps and illustrations, the main attraction of The Lost Tombs of Saqqara is the exceptional beauty of the photography.

Saqqara is a vast, sprawling necropolis to the south of Cairo.  It was used from the Early Dynastic period onwards for royal and elite burials. It is best known for the Step Pyramid of Djoser, Egypt’s earliest pyramid.  It is also remarkable for other Old Kingdom pyramids and beautifully decorated mastaba tombs; but few tourists venture away from the Step Pyramid and its associated structures. Saqqara is an enormous site and was used almost continuously throughout Ancient Egypt’s long history.

The focus of  The Lost Tombs of Saqqara is in an area known as the Bubasteion in the New Kingdom necropolis.  The Bubasteion was named for its much later association with the worship of the feline deity Bastet.   The book describes the work of the Mission of the Bubasteion, a French team led by the author, Alan Zivie.  The team has been excavating the unexplored tombs in a small cliff since 1980. The book describes the team’s efforts to discover, uncover and conserve the lesser known tombs of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties and looks briefly at their re-use in the Ptolemaic period as a cemetery for mummified cats.


The cover photograph shows a group of Egyptians in local dress working in and around a hole in the sand with the desert stretching into the distance, with Djoser’s Step Pyramid on the horizon.  It is a dramatic photograph which Zivie points out evokes excavations of a much earlier time and captures the impression of adventure and danger that many people have of an Egyptian excavation.   Zivie says that the photograph represents beginnings. He devotes a considerable amount of time to demonstrating how workers engage directly with the past that they excavate and the objects that they handle.

Zivie describes his task in writing this book as dealing with the “stereotypes of passionate but ill-informed amateurs for the sake of leading them, as it were, ‘in the right direction’.” It is highly anecdotal, “rejecting ivory towers,” and emphasizing the human dimension of the exercise – difficult conditions, hard work, enthusiasm, excitement and discovery.  The tone of the book is colourful and inviting; its intention is to bring the general public into the world of excavation. Zivie aims to bring ideas of intuition, adventure and beauty into the world of  specialized science.  The language is lively, heart-felt and often ornate.

The opening chapters are each only a few pages long.  The first chapter, The Voices that Come from the Sand introduces the purpose of the book and explains its approach.  The second,  From Cat Catacombs to Tombs of Nobles, explains the geographical context of the New Kingdom tombs under discussion, and their relationship with the better known Ptolemaic cat burials which re-used some of the tombs.  It wraps up with a description of the need to protect the sites against modern development.  In the next chapter, The New Kingdom Rediscovered, Zivie mentions the reality of the experience of excavation – “foul-smelling (thanks to decayed cat mummies)”, deconstructing romantic preconceptions about the work involved before going on to describe the appearance, construction and decoration of the tombs.  He also highlights how the excavations have shed light on various aspects of the New Kingdom.  Insights include an improved understanding of the Amarna period, the importance of the roles of the tomb owners and the significance of these roles in the wider Egyptian context.  

The main body of the book consists of the 55 colour photographs by Patrick Chapuis.  Each photograph is given an entire page with a description provided on the page opposite. Most of the description is taken up with the excavation of a number of tombs, particularly those of Aper-El and Maia.  The photographs are superb, forming a vivid narrative of the excavation process, with all its challenges and rewards. Showing small dusty, debris- filled spaces, men in masks, chambers, scenes and items uncovered, and ongoing conservation work, the photographs are quite simply gorgeous.  They provide a useful reminder that tombs are found not as we see them today, but often in very derelict conditions, half  full of sand:  “our own conditions are particularly difficult, with omnipresent ashes and dust making the air unbreathable and blacking the skin, the heat intensified by our lighting”.  Particularly delightful were the before and after photographs of a wall scene of Maia, her head just visible above the level of the sand, followed on the next page by the entire scene uncovered.  The text introduces some fascinating characters: the vizier Aper-El, the royal nurse Maia (shown with the child Tutankhamun), the royal butler Seth, an ambassador of Ramesses II, a naval officer, a chancellor of Hatshepsut, and master painters and artisans responsible for paintings in the Valley of the Kings who were apparently former residents of Deir el Medina. The Ptolemaic cat cemetery is not ignored, and their sarcophagi, coffins and some quite remarkable objects are described, including the discovery of a statue of Wadjit, human burials and a mummified lion.

In the next chapter Endless Search, Endless Sand, Zivie again emphasizes the importance of the tombs with regard to information provided about the Amarna period.  Zivie explains that the area still has much to offer in terms of discoveries, describes some of the improvements being made at Saqqara, and mentions some of his predecessors who uncovered other parts of the necropolis.  In Objects from Aper-El’s tomb in Egyptian Museums, he talks about the location of some of the more prestigious items retrieved from the tomb.  In The Tombs of the Bubasteion and Their Owners, Zivie lists the names of the tombs with names and descriptions of the owners and their titles and, where known, their family members.  The chapter The Mission of the Bubasteion, its Partners and its Supporters acknowledges contributors to the project.  The chapter “Publications and Films” includes a three page bibliography, with most of the titles in French and all but a handful written by Zivie himself.  The films listed are six documentaries.  The booked is wrapped up with a helpful chronology of Ancient Egypt.

There are two maps.  The map on page 16 shows the location of Saqqara in relation to other Ancient Egyptian locations and that on page 142 shows the cliff of the Bubasteion with all the major tombs marked.  There is a plan of the tomb of Aper-El on page 138.


In its favour, the book is very engaging and attractive.  Many readers will, I am sure, be entirely satisfied by the way in which the book opens up the world of excavation and conservation via the photographs and descriptions that make up the main body of the book.  In spite of the fact that this is an anecdotal and highly personal view on the excavation process, never drilling down into much detail, this will certainly provide a marvellous insight for those unfamiliar with the process of excavation.

The other main benefit of the book is the introduction to the owners of the New Kingdom tombs, together with the information that they contribute to our knowledge of Ancient Egypt.   A decade ago these individuals were unheard of.  The identification of a number of the personages has provided useful information, for example, about the ways in which professional people moved around the country in the New Kingdom.  Zivie touches on these insights briefly, but provides enough information for the reader to accept that they are valuable.

For those familiar with the better known Old Kingdom remains at Saqqara, the description of other parts of the vast necropolis will be informative.  Saqqara, it emerges, continued to maintain its elite status during the New Kingdom.

Finally, the book’s strongest feature is the photography, which is superb and tells its own story bringing the excavation work and the features of the New Kingdom tombs to life, revealing the chambers step by step as they are excavated.  The photographs are well presented on good quality silky paper  and the quality of the printing displays the colours and the details perfectly.

On the possible downside, some readers may be disappointed that the book fails to provide a more in-depth analysis of the New Kingdom tombs at Saqqara.  The emphasis is on the human experience of excavation rather than on the information derived from the tombs.  Zivie certainly touches on the importance of the tombs but his descriptions are brief.  This means that an understanding of  the value of the sites is often lost in the book’s descriptions of moment by moment experiences.  Many readers will enjoy this, but others might wish that Zivie had produced a larger and more detailed book dealing with the historical significance of the excavated tombs and the tombs’ owners.  To Zivie’s great credit he left me yearning for more information, but I was frustrated not to find it in this book.

I was sorry that there was no general description to introduce each of the tombs most deeply discussed.  For example, the main chapter dives straight into a description of the coffins of Tawaret, wife of Aper-El, without providing information about the design of the tomb and the background of its owners – and the plan of the tomb is found only at the end of the book.  Again, the focus is on the excavation work, rather than the site history, and gave me the slight sense, as the book proceeded, that the finds exist in something of  a vacuum.  The preceding chapters were not sufficiently detailed or specific to prevent this.  In many ways the main chapter reads like a series of blog entries, and suffers from a some degree of fragmentation.

Zivie is always at pains to separate out the historical and scientific from the tourist and non-scholarly point of view, indicating that the Egyptologist is more concerned with information than finds and that tourists have, perhaps, a more “simplistic, cut and dried vision” of certain aspects of Egypt.  Although Zivie usually strikes a good balance sometimes, rather oddly in a book that appears to be aiming at the general public, the tone can become somewhat patronizing.  In the chapter “The New Kingdom Rediscovered, ” for example, he says “For those interested in the reign of ‘Ramesses the Great’ (as Ramesses II is sometimes called by those who do not distance themselves from the ancient royal propaganda and modern pulp fiction)” before he goes on to make his point.

Finally, I found the style of writing more than somewhat distracting.  Some of the phrasing is awkward and even confusing.  Many of the sentences are substantially long and involved, and the author’s point can become buried in his prose.   On one page I noted a sentence that ran over seven lines of text and I found it difficult to untangle the meaning.  Personally I found the frequent use of rhetorical questions irritating, and the prose excessively inflated and ornate, interrupting the flow of information rather than supporting it.  Perhaps Zivie’s prose simply does lend itself well to translation from the original French, but it does seem to me that in trying to ensure that the spirit of the language is not lost in the process of translation, the clarity and meaning are occasionally rendered difficult to reach.


Overall, this book describes and captures a very personal take on the work being carried out by the Mission of the Bubasteion at Saqqara.  There is some good top-level introductory information, and a great many insights into the day to day work on the excavation.  The enthusiasm with which Zivie writes is contagious.  The photographs are exceptional and provide a fascinating narrative of their own.  This is the closest that many of us will ever get to the look and feel of excavation an Ancient Egyptian tomb, and for that alone the book has considerable value.  This has certainly whetted my appetite for more information.   I look forward to hearing that Alain Zivie has released a longer and more analytical book on the same subject.