The mastaba of Neferherenptah at Saqqara

Known as "The Bird Tomb", because of the great number of fowl engraved or painted on its walls, it is part of a group of eleven burials discovered and searched in 1940 by Abd el-salam Mohammed Hussein. As all the characters having their tomb at the south of the causeway of Unas, Neferherenptah was not a senior official of the state, but belonged to a group of men who were holders of functions appropriate to the sovereign's personal service. He took care of the king's hairdressing, his wigs and directed the other hairdressers of the palace.
The tomb presents a complex history and includes three floor levels, of which only one is decorated, and that only partially.

The burial complex was established in several phases during the Vth Dynasty, which will be returned to later.

It was never the object of a complete publication, the remaining reference work being the one of Hartwig Altenmüller, the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) having received the authorisation to work in this tomb during the 70s of the last century.

Within the group of tombs which are at the south of the causeway of Unas, the one of Neferherenptah is located at the west end of a sub-group and is positioned higher in relation to those of Irukaptah, Akhethetep and Nyankhra, which are towards the east. As all tombs of this area, it underwent the repercussions of the construction of the causeway of Unas.


Because of an erroneous interpretation of the texts found in the tomb, it has been assigned for a long time to a person named Ptahshepses , which finally proved to be the son of the final owner. The inscriptions of this tomb prove, without possible contestation, that the final owner of the monument was definitely Neferherenptah (("Beautiful face of Ptah"). He carried the titles of "Head of the Hairdressers of the Great House (i.e. the palace) ", "Supervisor of the wig and hairdressers", "Known to the king". Nothing else is known about him nor of his family.


The tomb includes three superimposed levels, with very distinct chambers, which are not visible when one visits the monument, because the middle level and the lowest one are not accessible. These two are also uninscribed. It is necessary to examine the plan established by the German researchers to enable understanding the group of chambers (, however it is German).

The lowest level

This corresponds to the sarcophagus chamber which one reaches by a ramp which descends from the middle level. The chamber measures 4.20m (south - north) by 2.10m (west - east) and 2.10m in height. To the west is located a table of offerings measuring 4.20m x 0.80m x 0.78m. The sarcophagus, in thin Toura limestone, is at the east end, its measurements being 2.73m x 1.32m x 0.90m. The side walls of it are 30cm thick, as also is the lid, which had been found out of place on its side. It had no human remains.

The middle level

It is condemned today. All the space at the level is cut into the rock. The central section, oriented north - south, measures 8.90m x 2.00m x 2.40m (height). It represents a room intended the cult worship with any precision. It doesn't include text or decoration. 1.40m to the south of the northwest corner stood a false door of 2.10m in width, 2.10m in height and 30cm of depth, which has disappeared. Behind it is a serdab, T-shaped when the entrance is included. The serdab itself is 2.10m wide by 0.70m deep and 1.90m in height.
In ground opposite this false door opens up into a pit of 1.00m x 1.10m and 1.70m in depth, which provides a descent of 2.73m long which links the cult chamber to the sarcophagus chamber of the lower level.

In the northeast corner a corridor of 1.80m long by 0.80m wide and 2.10m in height which extends into a hallway, currently filled with rubble, before continuing to a second area 1m long, which opened up on to the outside. This entry - which was therefore below the present entry - was overhung by a lintel. Both faces of the corridors are lined with limestone blocks (the hallway was probably also).

The upper level


This is the chapel which one visits today, after having climbed a modern set of steps. The total construction is not completely free, the desert sand now regaining the southern part, whilst the north section is included in the base of the Unas causeway (see ). The measurements of original mastaba are estimated at 16.00m by 10.20m, with a height of 4.40m.

The face is the mastaba includes two niches, one to the south: 1.10m wide, 40cm in depth and 3.80m in height, and the other to the north: 3.90m wide, 30cm in depth and 3.50m in height (see ). The entry corridor into the chapel is at the same level of the last niche. It measures 0.80m wide, 1.60m long and 3.20m in height, which decreases to 2.80m inside, where there is the roller above the entrance. Below this roller was a door which previously opened towards the left. It should be noted on the photos opposite that the walls are lined with smoothed beautiful limestone plates, but without decoration, and that the roller above the door was not inscribed either.

The chapel measures 6.15m north-south by 1.30m in width (east-west) and 3.50m in height. The chamber is L-shaped due to the presence in the southwest corner of a niche, extending to 40cm from the bottom of the end wall, 2.0m wide and 0.80m in depth, which shelters a incomplete false door.
Behind the south wall is a serdab of 5.15m in length by 1.30m wide and 2.50m in height, whose floor is 0.70m above that of the chapel, with which it is connected through a small narrow gap (very visible on the base wall seen here ).

The shaft

A vertical shaft, which begins at the top of the mastaba and crosses firstly the masonry of this, reaches the ground level at 5m to the north outside niche and from there penetrates 12m in the rock of the plateau. It has a square cross-section of 1.85m on each side. At the bottom a gallery opens up of 1m in width and height. This extends northwards and ends, after 2.20m, in an incomplete chamber, of which only the west wall is levelled.
This room, which was intended to become the sarcophagus chamber, has been left in this state, because, in a fortuitous manner a breach of 50cm was probably open by the chisel of the quarrymen, resulting in the sarcophagus chamber of the lower level the existence of which had been forgotten for an unknown reason.
The owner of the upper level immediately decided to abandon his initial project and to exploit the discovery that had just been made. He connected the three levels and thus he found himself the owner of a tomb of a larger size, with a sarcophagus already in place. What a chance of a lifetime for him!

Communication between the upper and middle levels.
In the floor of the north side of upper chapel (1) a first vertical well of 1m descends to the height of the ceiling of the chamber below. From there, a sloping passage of 2m in length proceeds to the north-west corner of chapel (2) of the middle level.

The connection between the middle and lower levels is made by the descents which have already been discussed.

Significance of the architecture of the tomb

The very complex arrangement of the tomb of Neferherenptah reveals several phases of construction.

• Phase 1

Firstly, a group of rupestrian tombs were created at the level of the quarry which is at the south of the complex of Djoser. Among these was the tomb discussed here, but destined for someone of whom we don't know anything. As that of its neighbours, it consists of a cult chamber with a hallway and a chamber with - maybe a privilege - a stone sarcophagus.

• Phase 2

This first tomb was never used, because it was going to be included in the causeway leading the pyramid of Unas from his temple of the valley. The ceiling of the hallway towards the chapel, the entries as well as the passages, were demolished. The empty spaces were filled by blocks to serve foundations in the causeway, and all the installation was to be buried under 1.50m of remnants and rubble.

• Phase 3

On this heightened ground, a 3rd phase was going to see the construction of a mastaba. At the time of the planning of the funeral shaft, the workers came across the chamber forgotten from the previous rupestrian tomb. The new owner, Neferherenptah, decided to reuse the stone sarcophagus, which is why he dug two galleries of communication.

• Phase 4

The final phase was linked to the closing of the mastaba. Under Unas, the foundations of the causeway would be raised to its present level, so that the north corner of the mastaba disappeared in this causeway and the entry of the tomb was buried. It is even possible that the entire mastaba disappeared under the rubble, a fate common to all other neighbouring tombs which are located to the south of the causeway (of which is the one of Irukaptah) .


The mastaba of Neferherenptah constitutes a good tool of analysis for the Unas causeway, just as this causeway can serve as a dating element for the tomb.
So the rupestrian tomb of the first stage, quickly buried, could date from the 1st half of the 5th Dynasty (Kanawati suggests the reign of Niuserre), whereas the mastaba of the following phase had been constructed during the reign of Unas, last king of this Dynasty. Did the closing of the tomb take place during the construction of the causeway of the pyramid, therefore later, under Unas, towards the end of the reign (?).