Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Secrets of the pyramid builders’ tombs

The pyramid builders’ cemetery on the Giza Plateau has been opened to the public for the first time, 30 years after its original discovery, writes Nevine El-Aref

 

Ptah-Shepsesu’s tomb
Ptah-Shepsesu’s tomb

At the southern edge of the Giza Plateau lies the pyramids builders’ cemetery with its distinguished architecture announcing to the world that these men were not slaves, as the ancient Greek historian Herodotus claimed, but peasants conscripted on a part-time rotation basis working under the supervision of skilled artisans and craftsmen.  

These men, not only built the Pyramids for the Pharaohs, but also designed and constructed their own more modest tombs beside the kings.

Last week after the development of the site to make it more tourist-friendly, the cemetery was officially inaugurated to the public for the first time, 30 years after its discovery by Egyptian Egyptologist Zahi Hawass.

In 1990, the first pyramid builders’ tomb was uncovered when an American tourist was thrown from her horse when it stumbled on a previously unknown mudbrick wall which turned out to be a long vaulted tomb chamber with two false doors.

The excavated cemetery includes a collection of around 30 large tombs for overseers and 60 graves of construction workers and artisans. The majority of the tombs are in mudbrick and of varying shapes and sizes and supported by chunks of limestone, basalt and granite.  

Some have long vaulted chambers and false doors through which the deceased could communicate with the living and receive offerings. Others are pyramid-shaped structures or have stepped domes, beehives and gabled roofs, while still others have open courtyards or small ramps.

The tombs were built using leftover materials from the construction of the Pyramids. The Ministry of Antiquities has restored the tombs and developed the site with a view to creating an open-air museum at the pyramid builders’ cemetery. Information boards have been erected in both English and Arabic, and a visiting path created to guarantee secure circulation around the different tombs and burial sites.

Head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Department at the Ministry of Antiquities Ayman Ashmawi told Al-Ahram Weekly that the tombs of Ptah-Shepsesu, Nefer-Theith and Petiti were the only ones that would be opened to visitors under the supervision of an archaeological inspector from the Giza Plateau.  

Ptah-Shepsesu’s was the first tomb in the cemetery to be uncovered. It is made of mudbrick with a long vaulted chamber and two false doors. Crude hieroglyphs scrawled on the doors identify the name of the tomb-owner and his wife. At the back of the chamber are three burial shafts for the couple and their son. In front of the tomb there is a square courtyard with low walls of broken limestone.

The tomb and courtyard are grand in comparison to the others uncovered around it. Pieces of granite, basalt, and diorite, stones used in the pyramid temples, have been incorporated into the walls.  

The second tomb belongs to Nefer-Theith, the ancient supervisor of the bakery in the Pyramids area. It is a simple tomb inscribed with beautiful hieroglyphic texts. It contains three limestone false doors and a stelae inscribed with the name of the deceased, his two wives and his 18 children.  

“The false doors of his tomb are unique for their scenes of grain-grinding, and bread and beer-making,” Ashmawi said. Inside the tomb there is a list of feast days and offerings for the deceased including bread, beer, birds and oxen. On the false door of his first wife Nefer-hetepes there is a list that records offerings of natron used in mummification, sacred water, oil, incense, kohl, 14 types of bread, cakes, onions, beef, grain, figs and other fruits, beer, and wine. On the third false door, two stelae represent Nefer-Theith standing while below him a man makes beer and another person pours it into jars.  

The third tomb is for a worker named Petety who was the supervisor of the junior workers on the Pyramids. The tomb has a unique form with three open courts. Petety and his wife Nesy-Sokar are depicted separately because she was a priestess of the goddess Hathor. She is also described as beloved of the goddess Neith, shown standing on the doorjamb of the chapel in the traditional pose, one arm raised on her breast and the other behind her back.

On either side of the entrance to the tomb Petety wrote hieroglyphic texts to protect himself and his tomb from tomb-raiders. Petety’s curse threatens anyone approaching his tomb that “the priest of Hathor will beat twice anyone who enters this tomb or does harm to it.”  

“Anyone who does anything bad to this tomb… the crocodile, hippopotamus and the lion will eat him,” the curse says.

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