Tuesday 3 November 2020

Streaming on Netflix - Rod Bishop finds a documentary on Ancient Egypt that is rating its socks off - SECRETS OF THE SAQQARA TOMB (James Tovell, USA/Egypt, 2020)

Years ago, I did a course in hieroglyphs. Our Egyptian professor was enthusiastic and made it sound so easy. It wasn’t, but there was a big payoff in the final exam. 

We were given a single block of hieroglyphs to translate and a time limit. The first step was to transliterate the hieroglyphs before then translating into English. I started work, amused that my only second language was a dead one, but within minutes it came very much alive. A voice was rising from the page and speaking to me: 

I am one who cares for the sick, buries the dead, gives goods to one in need… 

I was overseer of people in excess of thousands. 

I was overseer of cattle, overseer of goats, overseer of donkeys, overseer of sheep, overseer of swine… 

I am one generous with fodder and food…I dealt big meat cuts to those seated beside me… 


It was the voice of Steward Mentuwosre speaking to me from 4,000 years ago, a father of two sons and a daughter:

I am one loved of his kindred, one close to his kin… 

I am father to the orphan, support of widows; no man slept hungry in my district. 

I hindered no man at the ferry; I maligned no man to his superior; I paid no heed to calumny. 

I am one who speaks in the presence of nobles, one free of talking gossip…and one who listens to justice… 


The Netflix documentary Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb centres on the most significant find from Ancient Egypt in over half a century. Discovered in 2018, it’s a holy grail: an entirely intact tomb, never opened, never burgled, the occupant unknown to Egyptologists.


The cache of priceless antiquities emerges from the tomb at an astonishing rate and the labourers and archaeologists can barely contain their excitement over the hieroglyphs on the tomb walls: a man called Wahtye is speaking to them after 4,500 years of silence. 


He tells of his career as a royal purification priest; of the accomplishments in his life; of his wife Weretptah; his mother Meritmeen and daughter Seket and his three sons Seshemnnefer, Kaiemakhnetjer and Sebaib.


But the hieroglyphs may contain other clues. Why is Wahtye’s name written so many times? Did he steal the tomb from his brother? Did the whole family die at the same time? Why do they all appear hastily buried in wooden coffins?


Found under 5 metres of sand on the Bubasteion Necropolis, only a short distance from Djoser’s Step Pyramid, the 10 metre by 3 metre rock-cut tomb is lavishly decorated with scenes of sailing, hunting, offerings, pottery, furniture and, uniquely, 55 statues built into the tomb walls.

The dig personnel (some pictured above) are all Egyptians: from the labourers to the Egyptologists, to the experts in hieroglyphs, anthropology, rheumatology, funerary archaeology and archaeozoology. 


After so many “foreigners” with their Orientalism have become famous as Egyptologists, it is moving to witness the enthusiasm of these locals for their own past, for the wonders beneath their sands and for this unusual treasure-chest assigned to them - the true inheritors.

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