Review of the documentary Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb

Pluses: A story about the unusual finds of Egyptian archaeologists and their daily life; interesting archaeological mystery; parallels between the lifestyles of modern Egyptians and their distant ancestors Cons: Some scenes seem slightly staged Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb / “Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb”

Genre Documentary
Directed by James Towell
Studios At Land Productions, Netflix
Release year 2020
Site IMDb

As the name implies, Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb is dedicated to an archaeological expedition to the Saqqara necropolis. This is the necropolis of the capital of the Old Kingdom – Memphis, located 30 km south of Cairo, it was here that the first pyramids began to be built. In addition to the pyramids themselves, the sands of Saqqara buried ancient temples, the tombs of nobles and the graves of ordinary people. Now they are gradually being returned to the world, and new discoveries in Saqqara occur literally every year. The film tells about the study of the tomb of Vah-Ti, a noble priest of one of the temples of the time of the pharaoh of the 5th dynasty Neferirkare Kakai, discovered in December 2018. The age of the tomb is estimated at approximately 4400 years.


Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb is interesting primarily due to the focus on the daily work and life of people associated with excavations. All of them Egyptians, this is one of the first fully Egyptian expeditions to explore Saqqara. At the same time, we are talking not only about archaeologists working directly on the site, the stories of those participating in the study of the tomb and the remains extracted from it, invited experts – archeoanthropologists, linguists, archeozoologists, are also interesting. Another unusual find is connected with the latter, made in a nearby cat necropolis, the excavations of which took place in parallel with the study of the Vah-Ti tomb.


Another interesting feature of the film is the tracing of a certain spiritual connection between the people involved in the excavations with their ancestors who lived in ancient Egypt. Without noticing it themselves, the researchers divided into an elite – priests-archaeologists; the management stratum and overseers – junior research workers and the foreman of the excavations; and wage laborers/slaves – those who directly dig up the tombs and do all the hard work, often with the same tools that their ancestors used to build these tombs and temples 4500 years ago.

Interestingly, for many workers, excavation is the only source of income and a craft passed down from generation to generation. Their fathers worked at excavations in the middle of the last century, grandfathers and great-grandfathers – at the beginning of the 20th and the end of the 19th century. Now they bring their children to the excavations so that they gain experience. Let’s say that the same foreman/supervisor, whose job is to communicate with ordinary workers and give orders, is far from the first representative of his dynasty who does this. I would not be surprised if this “craft” has been passed down in his family since the time of the pharaohs.


And although all the events shown in Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb take place over six weeks and are dedicated to solving the mystery of the priest Vah-Ti and his family (and everything is very difficult there), the filmmakers manage to give a kind of peculiar cut of the life of modern Egypt. A poor but proud country that respects its past.

The only thing you can find fault with in Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb is some ostentation. For example, the scene of dissecting the bones from the Vah-Ti burial was filmed right in the tomb, right on the edge of the open burial shafts, in a place that was not the most convenient and well-lit for sorting and studying small and fragile material. Yes, it certainly looks very impressive, but also a little silly. There are certain claims to the final scene of the film. Yes, such happy accidents do happen in the life of archaeologists, but what about the closing day of the season, when the distribution of funding for the next year is determined? Too timely.


Other than that, Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb is a great documentary worth watching. And the fact that it is not dedicated to some hyped monument like the Sphinx or the pyramid of Cheops is very good. The story about the excavations and the work of archaeologists captivates precisely with its earthiness and lack of pathos. In a word, we recommend.


An interesting documentary about the daily work of Egyptian archaeologists

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