An Update on Excavations at the Giza Workmen's Cemetery

Ms. Heidi Saleh completed her undergraduate work at the University of Texas. She earned her M.A. at Berkeley and is currently an Egyptian Archaeology Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, also at Berkeley. Heidi has worked on excavations in Egypt's Delta, and most recently at the workmen's cemetery on the Giza Plateau, under the direction of Dr. Zahi Hawass.

The workmen's cemetery site is located south of the Monumental Wall of the Crow on the Giza Plateau, which was probably built in the reign of Khufu to separate the necropolis from the workmen's village. The cemetery contains burials dating to Dynasties 4 through 5 as well as some intrusive Late Period burials. It is divided into two sections; the Upper and the Lower Cemeteries. The Lower Cemetery contains burials of laborers and a few overseers. The Upper Cemetery was reserved for the artisans and most of the overseers.

The first of the ancient tombs discovered in the workmen's cemetery was found by Dr. Zahi Hawass in 1988-89. At that time he found just one. In 1999 more tombs came to light. The story is that a tourist's horse stumbled when the overburden gave way, and revealed a tomb below. 

The tombs in the Upper and Lower Cemeteries are widely distributed, and the estimate is that only about 20% of the burials have been excavated to date. The Lower Cemetery contains many types of tombs as well as causeways and ramps that lead to the Upper Cemetery. Some tombs are limestone block mastaba tombs, some are made of mud brick, and some are rock cut with shafts of various depths. Some tombs are dome-shaped, which was a regional style. It is postulated that the deceased chose to use a tomb style from his home province. The Upper Cemetery contains tombs of better quality, and houses the remains of individuals of higher rank. For example, the "Director of the King's Works" and "The Overseer of Craftsmen".

Heidi noted that Giza burials are generally with the head to the north facing east, and men and women are represented equally. All the adult skeletal remains show evidence of heavy labor. Fourth and Fifth Dynasty burials did not include inscriptions.

Tomb GSC 26 is an uninscribed tomb in the Lower Cemetery, with a facade made of mud brick and limestone. It has several burial shafts. The entrance to shaft #1 was found at almost 2 meters depth and the mud brick plug was still in place. When it was removed, a rough-cut, family burial chamber was revealed. The remains of a child were not mummified. The chamber is in poor condition and the rising water table has resulted in a high level of disintegration. Shaft #2 is approximately 3 meters deep and includes small indentations in the shaft wall used by the workmen in antiquity to get out of the shaft. The burial chamber was found, again behind a mud brick plug. It contained the skeletal remains of the deceased as well as some large fragments of a wooden coffin. The third burial was not found in a rock cut shaft, but rather in a meter deep depression, and the deceased had a lovely plate resting near the remains.

One impressive Upper Cemetery complex is that of the official, Peti-ti, an Inspector of Young Craftsmen, and is of 4th Dynasty origin, based on the decoration found. It is 14 meters by 10 meters and was built in two phases. It contained nine burials in all. The tomb complex has many peculiar features. The complex is entered from the north, then one passes through a second entrance at which stands a limestone block with a large hole in it. To the right is a well, which was found to contain charcoal. The second entrance leads to a second court, which originally contained a statue of a monkey, thought to have been a ward against evil. The third court contains a large depression which is lined with stone, plus a stela and statue niche. The fourth court contains two stelae as well as a basin on the north wall, and a small wall indentation and niche in the south wall in addition to a statue socket. The fifth and final court contains a stela inscribed with the famous "curse" text. At the end of the court is an unfinished, rock-cut chamber. Peti-ti and his wife have almost identical inscriptions on their funerary stela, but the tomb itself contains no inscriptions, thus it is impossible to determine which physical burial relates to which stela. 

In the western-most court of Peti-ti's tomb, nine superstructures of mud brick and limestone chips, were excavated by Heidi and her crew of Egyptian workmen. These superstructures were constructed to look like miniature mastabas. None of the burials beneath the superstructures were more than about a meter deep and one was as shallow as 75 centimeters, the skeleton being buried in the sand. The superstructures were clearly added after the deceased were placed in each burial pit. Some burials were traditional with the head to the north, facing east in a fetal position - but in burial #5 the individual's head was to the north, facing west and the outline of a disintegrated wooden coffin was discernable. Burial #6 contained a large, round, limestone "base", but no burial. Burial #7 was that of a tiny child, and Burial #8 again revealed traces of a wooden coffin. Beneath the superstructure of Burial #9 was a rock-cut chamber prepared for a baby.

It is too early yet to know the sex or age of the deceased from this tomb, but Heidi postulated that it is very possible that none of the burials in Peti-ti's tomb are that of the man himself. The burials seem very rushed and a bit haphazard, and many did not conform to traditional Egyptian burial patterns. No grave goods were found with any of the burials. Perhaps future seasons will reveal more about this interesting tomb and its owner.


Nancy Corbin

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