King Shepseskaf and His Mysterious Tomb at Saqqara

King Shepseskaf and His Mysterious Tomb at Saqqara

by Jimmy Dunn


The Cartouche of Shepseskaf

Ultimately, we know very little with any certainty about the last king of Egypt's 4th Dynasty. His birth name was Shepseskaf, meaning "His Soul is Noble", and like everything else about him, seems out of place. Most kings' of this (and most other) periods made some sort of reference to a god in their name, with all but his immediate successor, Userkaf, who founded the 5th Dynasty, giving that honor to the sun god Re.

We do believe with much certainty that his father was Menkaure (Mycerinus), the builder of the last great pyramid on the Giza Plateau. We also believe with considerable certainty that he was responsible for completing his father's pyramid. His mother is unknown, but was probably one of his father's minor queens. We also believe that he had at least one wife, named Bunefer. Egyptologists mostly seem in agreement that he ruled Egypt for a very short period, probably four years. Here, our knowledge of this king seems to end and speculation begins, for scholars appear to have many disagreements about the other aspects of his reign, which mostly hinge on the interpretation of his, and a few other tombs. Therefore, we must explore these prior to presenting other questions about Shepseskaf that beg for answers.

The Tomb of Shepseskaf

A View of   Shepseskaf's Mastaba Tomb

A View of Shepseskaf's Mastaba Tomb

Unlike his immediate predecessors and his successors, Shepseskaf chose the form of a Mastaba rather than a pyramid for his tomb, and perhaps for various reasons, built it in South Saqqara rather than on the Giza Plateau. Called by the locals, Mastaba Fara'un, (Pharaoh's Bench), it has always been one of the most enigmatic tombs of the Old Kingdom and therefore it much investigated by archaeologists. Perring was the first to describe it and though the Lepsius expedition spent little time investigating the tomb, Lepsius did note that it reminded him of a large sarcophagus. Mariette was really the first to truly investigate the structure in 1858, examining its underground construction, but regrettably, only a few of his sketches survived. They were later published by Maspero.

A statue head of Shepseskaf

However, through all the early years of Egyptology and up until the time that Gustave Jeuier carried out a systematic investigation of South Saqqara between 1924 and 1925, the tomb was ascribed to Unas, the last of the 5th Dynasty kings. Though Jeuier had a difficult time proving directly that the tomb belonged to Shepseskaf, there were several items evidencing its builder. First of all, a stela was found at the site that, while very fragmentary, contained a part of the sing for the last letter of the king's name. Independent of the site, he also discovered that the name of the king's tomb was "Shepseskaf is [ritually] purified", which concluded with a determinative (an explanatory sign) in the form of a mastaba, suggesting that Shepseskaf's tomb should take that form. Finally another stela dated to the Middle Kingdom showed that during that period, Shepseskaf's cult was still active on the site of Mastaba Fara'un.

One View of Shepseskaf's Mastaba Tomb

Certainly there was a valley temple connected with this tomb, but its remains have never been unearthed. The causeway that normally connected valley temples with their mortuary temples directly did not in this case, but rather led to the southeast corner of the temple before running along the south wall into the open courtyard surround the mastaba. It was built entirely of mudbrick, and seems to have taken the form of a corridor with a vaulted ceiling.

As much an aberration as everything else about this complex, the mortuary temple varies significantly from its predecessors. It stood in front of the east wall of the mastaba and just as the mastaba, was oriented north-south. It was small, but even so we may distinguish two different phases in its development, based on the material employed for its construction.

Floor plan of the tomb

The oldest section is built of stone and had three entrances. One of the entrances was in the middle of the east facade, while another was near the southeast corner. The third entrance was placed in the middle of the south facade. An open courtyard took up the eastern half of the temple. It was paved in limestone, and in its northwest corner once stood an altar. The inner part of the mortuary temple took up the western section of the temple and consisted of an offering hall shaped like an inverted letter T. In its west wall there was originally a false door in its west wall. Significantly, there were no statue niches in this inner sanctuary, though part of a statue of the king was found in the temple. The northwestern part of the temple was taken up by a cluster of smaller chambers that were probably storage annexes.

Later, a large, open courtyard made of mudbrick was created to the east of the mortuary temple with niches that adorned its inner walls.

Close-up view of Shepseskaf's Mastaba tomb

Shepseskaf's mastabas was huge, measuring some 99.6 meters (327 ft) long by 74.4 meters (244 ft) broad, and oriented north to south. The core of the mastaba was built in two levels of large, grayish yellow limestone blocks that originated in the stone quarries west of the pyramids at Dahshur. In the early years of Egyptian exploration, it was still possible to find remnants of the pathways over which this stone was transported. The mastaba was encased with fine white limestone except for the very bottom course of red granite (which makes us wonder if it was left over from his father's complex). On some of the casing blocks may be found inscriptions of Prince Khaemwese's later restoration of this monument. The outer slope of the casing was 70o and it had a vaulted top between vertical ends, taking the shape of a Buto shrine (according to some Egyptologists, such as Mark Lehner)..

On the axis of the north wall about two and one half meters above ground level, the entrance to the substructure seems more like that of a pyramid rather than a mastaba. Within, a small vestibule communicates with a corridor lined in pink granite that descends at an angle of 23o 30' for 20.95 meters (69 ft) to a corridor chamber immediately followed by three portcullis slots for plugging blocks. Afterwards, the corridor becomes horizontal and eventually terminates in an antechamber with a pink granite ceiling. From there, a narrow corridor leads out from the southeast of the antechamber connecting with six niches (some references state five) that may have functioned as small storage annexes. These may be seen as the equivalent of those found in the pyramid of his father and that of Khentkaues (pyramid), and may foreshadow the three small magazines that would later become standard.

The burial chamber within Shepseskaf's Mastaba tomb

Another short passage descends out of the antechamber to the west allowing access to the burial chamber. Its pink granite ceiling, like that of the burial chamber of his father, Menkaure, was sculpted into a false barrel vault. Indeed, even the fragments of his dark, basalt sarcophagus unearthed in the burial chamber was decorated very similarly to that of his father.

Surrounding the mastaba/mortuary temple complex was a second perimeter wall made of mud brick. Unlike other royal tombs of this period, there appears to have been no tombs for Shepseskaf's family members and officials within the area around his tomb.


The aberration of Shepseskaf's name, his tomb and the tomb of his possible daughter, consort or/and half sister all stand out like sore thumbs, awaiting the theories of Egyptologists that may perhaps never be proven. All we can do here is present the current speculation, and possibly add a little of our own.

Jequier offers an initial explanation that other Egyptologists, such as Jaromir Malek, who provided the Old Kingdom component of the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, find tempting. He was rather convinced that Shepseskaf choose the mastaba style tomb as an intentional protest against the priesthood of the cult of Re, the sun god, which was gaining considerable influence. Jequier believed that the ancient Egyptians considered the pyramid a symbol of the sun, as do many modern Egyptologists. Certainly the rise of the pyramid coincided with the growing influence of Re's cult. He also believed that Shepseskaf's move away from the Giza Plateau and hence, the traditions of his immediate predecessors, supported his position, but perhaps even more important to his argument was Shepseskaf's abandonment of Re's reference within his name.

Shepseskaf's Mastaba tomb with the Dahshur Pyramids in the background

This theory, along with several of its components can be easily attacked, and have been from a number of different directions. One of the easiest elements to overcome in Jequier's theory is Shepseskaf's move away from the Giza Plateau. His father, Menkoaure was required, due to spatial restrictions, to place his pyramid far away from the Nile, and it is relatively clear from his valley temple placement, blocking the principal conduit for construction materials into the necropolis, that he intended no more major monuments to be built there. In fact, there was simply no more room for such a major construct on the Plateau. This undoubtedly prompted Shepseskaf to look for another location, and in doing so, he chose a place that not so very far from the pyramids of the dynasty's founders. In fact, the stone for his mastaba came from Dahshur, the location of Snefru's Bent and Red Pyramids. Saqqara was also a very ancient necropolis, that in fact relates somewhat to his use of a mastaba rather than a pyramid.

Regarding Shepseskaf's use of a mastaba rather than a pyramid as a protest against the priesthood of Re, Ricke believed that the obelisk, rather than the pyramid, was considered by the Egyptians to be the symbol of the sun. After all, the 5th Dynasty kings who we believe constructed the sun temples, mostly at Abu Ghurob, with a short obelisk as a focal point, did so in addition to their pyramid complexes mostly at Abusir. In his opinion, which seems to be mirrored by one of modern Egypt's great scholars, Mark Lehner, he was, rather than rejecting the cult of re, honoring his religious heritage in the form of the Lower Egyptian "Buto-type" tomb. It was really not very uncommon at all for Egyptian pharaohs to display such archaic tastes. Similarly, Hans-Wolfgang Muller (1907-1991) felt that Shepseskaf's mastaba was a huge version of a hut hung with matting. Indeed, Stadelmann, drawing on the arguments of Ricke and Muller, pointed out that Shepseskaf's use of niches in the courtyard of his mortuary temple, as well as in certain elements of his father's pyramid complex, was, an archaizing element from Egypt's earliest architecture.

An Artiest  Impression of Shepseskaf's tomb as a Buto-Style Mastaba

In addition, it must also be noted that Shepseskaf faced the difficult task of completing his father's pyramid at Giza. This must have certainly created a considerable administrative and financial burden, at a time when the Egypt was apparently suffering some economic hardship. This may have led him to downsize his own tomb. Other possibilities exist. It is possible that the mastaba was initiated prior tohis ascent to the throne, for example, or that it was a provisional tomb created with the possibility that if time permitted, another once could have been built.

We question whether many of the issues will ever be answered. This tomb has been considerably investigated, as has the Saqqara Necropolis in general, so perhaps there will be no new answers. But the possibility always exists that future discoveries may, at least, provide answers to at least some of the questions surrounding this mysterious man and his tomb.






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