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Meet the Expert: Lara Weiss

Meet the Expert: Lara Weiss

Dr. Lara Weiss is curator of the Egyptian Department of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden/RMO). Since 2018 she is one of the field directors of the archaeological excavation project at Saqqara (Egypt), a project that the RMO is running in collaboration with the Museo Egizio in Turin (co-director Christian Greco). In 2017, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) awarded Lara with a Vidi-grant for her own research project 'The Walking Dead at Saqqara', which is hosted at the Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS).

This March the excavation team travels to Saqqara for six weeks. Before she left, LeidenGlobal spoke with Lara about her research at Saqqara, and the cooperation between a European Consortium in which the RMO takes part and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which has large renovation plans.

Curator, researcher, field director, project leader: Lara wears many different hats. She likes having the possibility of combining both fieldwork and museum work, giving her space to follow her research interests, but also requiring her to be flexible. Even though her workspaces are divided between the museum and Leiden University, the projects are closely related. Since 1975 the RMO has been working on the excavation project in Saqqara, sending a team there every year for research and excavations in collaboration with the Egypt Exploration Society (until 1999) and Leiden University (1999-now). Since 2015 the excavations are led by the RMO and the new partner Museo Egizio of Turin. Since 2018, the 3D Survey Group of Politechnico Milano joined the team under the direction of Professor Corinna Rossi.


Excavating Saqqara

The RMO's excavation project in Saqqara started with the search for the lost tomb of Maya and Merit, the owners of a set of important statues that have been in the RMO since 1829. The monumental tomb of Maya, the treasurer of king Tutankhamun, was rediscovered in 1986 along with many others over the past 43 years, and excavations continue every year. What makes Saqqara so interesting is the fact that the area was used as a place of divine worship and as a burial site for high officials and kings for more than 3000 years. For her research 'The Walking Dead', Lara is particularly interested in the lived religion at Saqqara, wanting to know how people dealt with organised religion in day to day practice, how religious traditions are shaped, modified or even invented, when and by whom. Egypt has always been dominated by its dead: almost everything you see in the museum comes from tomb contexts. People often think Egyptians were obsessed with death, but Lara says it's actually the other way around: the Egyptians invested in the afterlife because they wanted to continue their lives for eternity. Egyptians visited burial sites to remember their ancestors, but would at the same time hope for a nice final resting place as well. Saqqara is particularly interesting for this project because it spans a long period of time, granting the ability to research how the site developed over time. Lara’s research also greatly benefits from the long tradition of research the RMO conducted in the area and the numerous publications her predecessors have meticulously published. This now allows them to start thinking about a synthesis of the material.

In 2017-2018, the excavation team found three small tomb chapels with shaft leading to their burial chambers and the entrance to a new larger tomb. This year Lara and her team will further explore the area north of the tomb of Maya and hopefully find the name of the new tomb owner.

Collaboration with the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

When talking about the many hats Lara Weiss wears, a new one has just been added. The world-famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo has large renovation plans and has sought collaboration with five large European museums to assist in this task. Alongside the Museo Egizio (Turin), the British Museum (London), the Louvre (Paris), and the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung (Berlin), the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO) in Leiden will lend its expertise to help realise the renovation. Weiss is a member of the consortium on behalf of the RMO, which will develop a research- and publication strategy and a selected exhibition area in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Lara Weiss and her team write a ‘digging diary’ every week on the RMO website.