From the Archives: John Garstang at Alawniyeh , Beit Khallaf, and El Mahasna, 1900-1901

One of the most important collections in the Museum consists of the photographs from the excavations of John Garstang. Some of these have recently been catalogued and digitized as part of the ‘Ancient Egypt in Focus: The photographic Archives of John Garstang’ project, which is now available online.


Map showing approximate location of sites surveyed by Garstang in 1900-1901. © 2016 Google Maps, ORION-ME

Dish from grave L209, Alawniyeh

Small, four-legged dish discovered in grave L209 at Alawniyeh. The white line decoration on the interior depict a human figure and animals. (JG/F/2/1)

The earliest photographs in the collection come from Garstang’s excavations in 1900-1901, between the villages of Alawniyeh and Beit Khallaf, north of Abydos. Unfortunately, many of the original negatives from these excavations have been lost,including images of the tomb superstructures at Beit Khallaf.

Only two photographs of objects from burial L209 at Alawniyeh survive in our collection: a four-legged dish in Naqada II style, and a selection of unusual clay model arrowheads, and human figures.

Clay objects from tomb L209, Alawniyeh

Nine clay objects discovered at grave L209 at Alawniyeh, thought to be models of flint tools and human figures. (JG/F/2/3)


Limestone offering table with inscription found in tomb M366 at El Mahasna (JG/F/3/12), now in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium (E.0924).

The survey found a cemetery dating from the Early Dynastic period to the 11th Dynasty, south of the village of Mahasna. Garstang believed the majority of the burials to date from the Old Kingdom onward, though in 1908, the Egypt Exploration Fund excavated a predynastic cemetery to the west of the village. Garstang’s photographs only depict the more attractive or unusual objects discovered and the larger grave deposits.


Stoneware vessels, an alabaster head rest, and a copper mirror discovered in tomb M107 at El Mahasna (JG/F/3/7). The deposit was discovered in a bricked up chamber at the bottom of a burial shaft, and were taken for display in the Cairo Museum.

Much of the cemetery covered an earlier prehistoric settlement at the site. Although Garstang found little indication of dwellings, he discovered several pot kilns, including one with a half-baked pot still inside.


Close-up of a kiln discovered at site M S, showing a half-baked pot supported by fire bricks (JG/F/4/3).


Vessel in the shape of a frog, discovered at site M S near El Mahasna (JG/F/4/4).


Garstang also investigated the large, mud-brick structure near the village of Beit Khallaf, as part of the same work season. This structure had been thought to be an Old Kingdom fortress.

Garstang's published plan and section of tomb K1 (Mahasna and Bet Khallaf, 1903: pl. VIII).

Garstang’s published plan and section of tomb K1 (Mahasna and Bet Khallaf, 1903: pl. VIII).

Excavation revealed it was in fact a previously unknown mastaba tomb, which Garstang called K1. The burial shaft was found 25 metres below the surface, at the bottom of a stairway covered with alabaster vessels. This had been blocked by six massive stones lowered through shafts at the top of the tomb.

In addition to the alabaster vessels, Garstang found copper implements, stoneware vessels, and flint tools. Many of the alabaster vessels had mud seals bearing royal names of the 3rd Dynasty. Most of these bore the name of Djoser. Garstang believed that K1 was the burial place of Djoser, and not the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, which he thought showed little evidence of having been used as a tomb.

Group of alabaster vessels discovered in tomb K1 at Beit Khallaf (JG/F/1/10)

Group of alabaster vessels discovered in tomb K1 at Beit Khallaf (JG/F/1/10)

Further excavations in this area revealed four smaller mastabas. One of these, which Garstang called K5, was the tomb of prince Nedjemankh. Another (K2) contained seals bearing the name of Sanakht, who may have succeed Djoser. As with K1, Garstang believed this was the burial place of Sanakht.

Garstang argued that there were no remains at Saqqara which had been positively identified as belonging to Djoser. By contrast, K1 was near other royal tombs, and close to the 3rd Dynasty necropolis at Raqaqna. However, today it is more generally believed that the tombs belong to high officials of the 3rd dynasty, and not to the kings themselves.

The sites Garstang worked at in 1900-1901 have not been excavated since. The photographs in our archives provide context to objects now found in Museums around the world. These sites are not well-known outside the academic community. It is our hope that the digitization of the photographs from this expedition will make it more accessible to researchers and the general public alike.