The tomb of Maya and Meryt

At the end of the 14th century BC, Maya was one of the major figures in the Egyptian state, from the reign of Tutankhamun to that of Horemheb. His prestigious career is attested by his many titles and epithets, the most important of which is "Overseer of the Treasury" (that is Minister of Finance). We'll discuss it.
Maya had built in Saqqara, between 1330 and 1310 BC. J.C., a splendid chapel-tomb for himself and his wife Meryt. This tomb is the only one in Saqqara, during the New Kingdom, to have benefited from decoration in the subterranean rooms, a decoration that is of more than exceptional quality.

The remains above ground were extensively looted, especially by early Egyptologists. Statues and carved stone blocks from Maya's tomb are scattered over several museums around the world, and especially at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Leiden Museum in the Netherlands.
But Maya's career started much earlier. Indeed, Maya could be identified as one of Akhenaten's courtiers named May, owner of the unfinished tomb No. 14 at Amarna (TA 14), which is described along with the other tombs of Tell el-Amarna.

Before discussing Maya’s monument, we will quickly examine the new type of funerary architecture that we see developing at Saqqara in the New Empire. These developments may apply to other tombs that we will study later.

The tomb chapel, a particularity of Saqqara in the New Kingdom

The site of Saqqara is best known for its pyramids and mastabas of the Old Kingdom. Although in the New Kingdom the royal necropolis was transferred to Thebes, into the Valley of the Kings, the Saqqara Plateau still hosts many burials of elite persons, testifying to the importance that Memphis held (of which Saqqara is the main cemetery) as a religious, administrative and military metropolis.
According to the vagaries of archaeological discovery, the oldest tombs of the New Kingdom date from the middle of the 18th Dynasty (~1400 BC)

These monuments multiplied from the reign of Amenhotep III and their number peaked under the Ramessides. Currently (2021) the best represented period corresponds to the reign of Akhenaten and his immediate successors, including Tutankhamun.

The larger of these tombs actually resemble small temples, with even a pylon-shaped façade. The entrance gives access to a courtyard, which precedes three chapels of worship. Apart from the funeral worship of the deceased, it is not uncommon to find, as in temples, a cult place to worship a deity: Osiris, Hathor, or even to the bull Apis.
The manifestations of solar worship are omnipresent: east-west orientation; solar hymns inscribed on steles and pilasters; and a miniature pyramid placed on the roof of the central chapel.

The first surface chapels are built of unburnt bricks and have a clay floor. Then, in the wealthiest of tombs, the main areas have paved floors, and the door jambs, the architraves, the stelae, are limestone and often inscribed. A small pyramid overlooks the central chapel. During the 19th Dynasty, limestone slabs decorated with reliefs gradually line the brick walls - forcing the construction of the pyramid behind the central chapel. In the courtyard or chapel, one or more statues of the owner stands on pedestals. A vertical shaft located in the courtyard provided access to the underground burial chambers, dug deep into the bedrock.
Tombs of this type were built all over the surface of the Saqqara Plateau until the end of the 20th dynasty. After Ramesses II transferred his capital to Pi-Ramses, in the Eastern Delta, the Saqqara cemetery gradually lost its appeal.

The new kingdom necropolis at Saqqara

It is divided into four main sectors:
- the eastern escarpment above the village of Abusir
- the area to the north and east of the pyramid of King Teti (sixth dynasty)
- the southern escarpment, corresponding to the Bubasteion
- the area south of the Unas causeway: it is that area that will concern us.

The main tombs discovered near the Unas causeway are those of:
1- Maya, Treasurer of Tutankhamun
2- Tia, Treasurer of Ramesses II
3- Horemheb, general of Tutankhamun
4- Pay, Overseer of the harem of Tutankhamun
5- Meryneith, steward of the temple of Aton at Memphis
6- Ptahemouia, royal butler of Akhenaten.

The history of the (re)discovery of Maya's tomb

After being looted in antiquity, the tomb became buried in the sand and disappeared until 1843. In this year, the great German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius located the first courtyard, but not the substructure and its magnificent painted reliefs. He drew up a sketch plan, which was published in Volume II of his gigantic work, "Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Æthiopien". The monument's superstructures were then looted again and deliberate damage occurred. The few remaining architectural elements above ground were then covered by sand again and the tomb was lost once more.

In 1974, the British Egypt Exploration Society (EES) decided to launch an excavation campaign on the south side of the Unas causeway, with the aim of finding Maya. The EES was partnered with the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden for this project, which was managed by Geoffrey T. Martin.

The search

In January 1975, three days after the start of the work, a tomb of immense interest emerged from the sands, as it was the non-royal tomb of Horemheb, generalissimo of Tutankhamun, before he became pharaoh. A major discovery! Other smaller burials followed ... but still no Maya.

Finally, the discovery

This unexpectedly took place in 1986, eleven years after the excavation began.
Usually, archaeologists find elements of the superstructure first and the subterranean part only appears later. But on Maya's site, the surface architectural elements were either usurped, reused elsewhere, or destroyed by time or humans. But on the other hand, there were still many burial shafts present cut at different times. It was while exploring one of these shafts that starts from the courtyard of the tomb of Ramose (a contemporary soldier of Horemheb and Maya), that Martin and van Dijk discovered a tunnel cut through by looters. It leads into another shaft that descends about 20 m below ground level. From there, two flights of steps led to a complex of rooms.
And there... but let's listen to Geoffrey Martin's tale: "We had been in total darkness for about 15 minutes. Suddenly we glimpsed wonderful reliefs and were extremely surprised to find ourselves in an antechamber leading to a burial chamber. My colleague looked at an inscription on a wall and exclaimed, 'My God, it's Maya'!"

Excavation and restoration

The excavation and restoration of Maya's tomb lasted five years (1987 to 1991). It was conducted by a joint expedition of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) and the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden.

New access to underground rooms Nouvel accès aux salles souterraines

The underground rooms, carved in a layer of very soft rock, have been a great problem. Against the walls, the workers of antiquity placed a lining of limestone slabs while leaving a space between the bedrock and this limestone covering, filling the void between the two with earth. This device had the happy result of preventing to a large extent the efflorescence of salt crystals on the reliefs. This explains why the existing decorations are fairly well preserved.

It soon became clear that it would be impossible to restore the walls of the underground rooms on site. Protecting them while allowing visitors required a real technical feat: the intact reliefs as well as hundreds of fragments, were removed and reinstalled in a pit specially dug under the surface of the outer courtyard of the tomb and accessible by a small staircase.

Maya's career in its historical context

Debut in Tell el-Amarna

Tomb 14 in Tell el-Amarna La tombe 14 à Tell el-Amarna

Maya probably grew up at the court of Amenhotep III. The beginning of his career was in the time of Akhenaten, the so-called monotheistic pharaoh, whose disastrous administration almost destroyed Egypt (to follow this subject in depth, see ).  Maya could be identified as one of Akhenaten's courtiers, a high-ranking figure, with important fonctions and titles, who was called "May" (without the final "a"). The favour that he enjoyed is attested by the right to have a tomb in Amarna, TA 14 (see )

Under Tutankhamun

But it was during the reign of the young King Tutankhamun (1333-1323 BC) that he reached some of the most important positions in the country. Together with Horemheb and the Divine Father Ay, he ruled Egypt. It was at this time that he had his tomb built in Saqqara, as also did Horemheb.
Once Akhenaten and his immediate successors, the ephemeral Merytaton (daughter of Akhenaten) and Smenkharê disappeared, Maya finds himself faced with a huge task: Egypt's internal affairs had gone badly after almost twenty years of disorder due to the Amarna episode. Maya helped restore traditional cults, restored the temples which, while not being completely closed as it was long believed, were however quiescent.
Meanwhile, Generalissimo Horemheb dealt with the country's external affairs, which had been undermined in Asia by Akhenaten's irresponsible foreign policy- a mixture of neglect and incompetence. Horemheb therefore conducted several military campaigns and brought the vassals of Egypt back into line.

Under Ay and Horemheb

On Tutankhamun's death, Maya organized the funeral of the young king; he placed objects bearing his name in the funerary furniture, such as the votive offering that is currently in the Louvre Museum. Although there is a lack of documentation, it is very likely that Maya continued to hold office under his successor Ay. Then, having had the intelligence to support General Horemheb against his rival, General Nakhtmin, he remains in place under Horemheb who had become pharaoh.

Maya: the official character

G.T. Martin recorded 39 court titles (some of them purely honorary), 18 administrative titles, 3 variants of the title of scribe, 6 titles related to the conduct of works and 8 titles of priestly conduct. Listing all these titles and their variations comes out of the subject of this presentation, so we only quote the most important ones.

Administrative titles

► The most commonly returned title-function is "Overseer of the Treasury", with variations: "Overseer of the Treasury of the Lord of the Two Lands," "Overseer of the Treasury of Silver and Gold," "Overseer of the Double Treasury of Gold," "Overseer of the Double Treasury of Silver"
► Another important title-function is "(true) Royal Scribe (who he loves)."
► There is also often found:
"Fan bearer on the right of the king"
"Hereditary Prince"
"Seal bearer of the King of Lower Egypt"
"Who has every (seal) of the king on his ring"
"Mouthpiece of his majesty"
"(He) the stick governs the people"
"Who governs both shores"
"Overseer of works in the Place of Eternity" (Valley of The Kings)
"Guardian of the Secrets of the Palace"
"King’s favourite"
"Favourite of Horus (the King) in his palace"


"[He] Who does what pleases his majesty"
"Who does what pleases the Lord of the Two Lands"
"(He) whose every act satisfies the One (the king)"
"(His) conduct is beneficial in his heart (the king)"
"(He) whose ka was shaped by the Lord of the Two Lands"
"Great in the Palace"
"Great in his dignity"
"pleasant (in) the heart of the sovereign"
"Loved by the Lord of The Two Lands"
"One that the Lord of The Two Lands loves because of his virtues"

Priestly titles

Tia (time of Ramesses II) wedged between Maya and Horemheb Tia (époque de Ramsés II) s'est intercalé entre Maya et Horemheb

"Pure of hands when burning incense"
"Guardian of the secrets of the House of Gold in the temples of all gods"
"He who leads the procession"
"He who leads the feast of Amon"
or "Guide to the feast of Amon in Karnak"

Maya's posthumous memory

Maya disappeared in the course of year 9 of Horemheb's reign, or shortly thereafter (~ 1310 BC). His wife Meryt had predeceased him. Judging by the bone remains found in the tomb, he was in his 50s

A small unburnt brick chapel, from the end of the 18th dynasty and intended for a lector priest by the name of Yamen, is located against the south wall of the inner courtyard. Moreover, a stele proves that  Maya's funeral cult continued at least until Ramesside times.
This is probably the reason why the large tomb of Tia and Tia, brother-in-law and sister of Ramesses II, was inserted between the tombs of Horemheb and Maya. To do this, the layout had been carefully studied to allow this tomb to fit in this relatively limited space. The architect of Tia certainly would not have taken this trouble if the worship in Maya's tomb had already been abandoned.