The Tomb of Sabu and

The Tri-lobed "Schist" Bowl
Archae Solenhofen
Last modified August 25, 2003

from UnforbiddenGeology Website



The Mastaba of Sabu (Tomb 3111, c. 3100-3000 BC) was excavated by Walter B. Emery on January, 10th of 1936 at the plateau edge of North Saqqara, approximately 1.7 km north of Djoser's Step Pyramid (Fig. 1). Sabu was a high official or administrator of a town or province possibly called "Star of the family of Horus" during the reign of the First Dynasty Kings Udima (Den) and Enezib (Anedjib) - Emery 1949.

Fig 1. First-Third Dynasty cemetery on the plateau edge of North Saqqara (after Lehner 1997).

General Description of Tomb 3111

The superstructure of Tomb 3111 was surrounded by a palace facade made of mud brick, which exhibited the deeply recessed, niched walls indicative of Sabu's high social status (Fig. 2). Early 1st Dynasty mastaba facades were originally plastered and the recessed panels painted yellow to imitate wood, and the broadest forward faces painted in a variety of square, cross, and lozenge patterns to imitate woven reed-mats. This may have represented the wood frame and woven reed-mats structures of Predynastic shrines that became characteristic of archaic Upper and Lower Egypt (Lehner 1997).


In the south corner of the superstructure was located a platform of roughly dressed limestone blocks. Emery (1949) suggests that this is likely a temporary structure possibly used during the funerary ceremony of Sabu. The interior of the mastaba consisted of a seven roomed substructure located in a pit cut to a depth of 2.55 m into the gravel substrate and limestone bedrock (Fig. 2).


The rooms were separated by mud brick walls. The mud bricks were made of a dark black earth mixed with straw and averaged about 0.26 by 0.12 by 0.07 meters in size.

Fig 2. Tomb 3111 (after Emery 1949).

  • Room A was found intact and exhibited walls with traces of mud plaster and a roof made of wooden planks. The room was filled with 96 pottery vessels, some of which had domed and conical seals bearing the names of King Den and Sabu.

  • Room B was similar in design to room A. The room contained many articulated ox bones and the remains of what was originally large pieces of meat in proximity to 5 pottery bowls.

  • Room C exhibited walls with traces of mud plaster and a roof made of wooden planks supported by a socketed wooden beam positioned on the east and west facing walls. The room contained 71 pottery vessels, some of which had conical seals, but none bore names or impressions.

  • Room D was similar in design to room C. The room was found to be almost empty, containing only a few fragments of stone vessels and pottery.

  • Room E was the burial chamber. The brick walls were covered in mud plaster, which also exhibited traces of white stucco. The roof of wood planks was supported by three wooden beams socketed into the east and west facing walls. The burial chamber contained the remains of Sabu, which was the first time a noble of the First Dynasty was found in the position that it was originally placed at the time of burial. His body was positioned on its right side in a slightly flexed position with the head in a northerly direction (Fig. 3). The tomb was ransacked at some time it its history, but still exhibited some semblance to the original placement of objects. These objects consisted of copper and flint implements, 77 pottery vessels, ivory boxes, bones of 2 oxen, arrows, and stone vessels.

Fig 3. Burial chamber of Sabu (after Emery 1949).

Most of the 48 stone vessels in the burial chamber were found broken and represented 20 different types of stone vessel forms. The material used for these vessels consisted of travertine (39), metasiltstone (7), and volcanic tuff (2). One of the stone vessels was the elaborately designed metasiltstone ornamental tri-lobe bowl (Fig. 4) which was originally found crushed and scattered around the center of the tomb. The flint implements consisted of many small knives (85) and a few triangular scrappers (5).

Room F and G are similar in design to rooms A and B. Room F contained pottery fragments and a number of sealings bearing the name of King Anedjib. Room G contained scattered fragments of stone vessels and pottery.



The Ornamental Tri-lobed "schist" Bowl

The ornamental tri-lobed bowl has a maximum diameter of 61 cm and a maximum height of 10 cm (Emery 1949). Since originally found crushed it has been restored, and is now on display in the Cairo Museum (JE71295, Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Ornamental bowl from the 1st Dynasty tomb of Sabu (Tomb 3111).

(d. 61 cm, Cairo Museum, Photograph by Jon Bodsworth The Egypt Archive)


The vessel consists of a flat, round-bottomed bowl with 3 thinly carved, curved lobes orientated at 120 degrees around the periphery. Very flat and wide bowls are known from the 1st to 3rd Dynasties, but none have been found from the Predynastic Period (El-Khouli 1978). The lobes are separated from the rim by 3 biconvex-shaped perforations (Fig. 5). The center of the vessel contains a thinly carved tube approximately 10 cm in diameter (Fig. 6). When viewed edge on the vessel's flat bowl shape does not show perfect symmetry (Anthony Sakovich personal comm., Fig. 7).

Fig. 5. Biconvex-shaped perforation with tapered rim.

(Cairo Museum, Photograph by Jon Bodsworth The Egypt Archive)

Fig. 6. Close-up of center rock tube.

(Cairo Museum, Photograph by Jon Bodsworth The Egypt Archive)

Fig. 7. Edge on view showing bowl's asymmetrical form.

(Cairo Museum, Photograph by Anthony Sakovich Megaliths)


In the past, some Egyptologists have use the term "schist" to describe this artifact (Emery 1949, Aldred 1981); others have identified the object as a slate (Smith 1981). The term schist was not being used in a modern geologic context (i.e. a medium- to coarse-grained foliated metamorphic rock), but was being used to describe a metasedimentary rock called a metasiltstone. This rock is essentially the sedimentary rock siltstone that has been very weakly metamorphosed. It still retains its clastic sedimentary texture and has no visible schistosity. Metasiltstone is similar to slate, but is more coarse-grained and has no fissisity or slaty cleavage, making it a solid rock that does not easily fracture along discreet planes when struck. The weak metamorphism of siltstone indurates the rock and increases the cohesiveness of the mineral grains (i.e. rock hardness), making the rock less susceptible to fracture during carving.


This allows for fine detail and intricate shapes to be carved into vessels, statues, palettes, and other such objects. Metasiltstone as a material for vessel manufacturing came into use during the middle Predynastic and was used extensively during the Early Dynastic Period (Aston 1994). Besides the tri-lobed bowl there are a number of intricately carved metasiltstone objects known from the Early Dynastic, such as a very ornate toilet tray (Fig. 8), flower-shaped vessels (e.g. 1st Dynasty, UC37063 - Note: identified as greywacke but more likely metasiltstone, metagreywacke was not used until the Old Kingdom and not for vessels (Nicholson & Shaw 2000) -, vessels shaped as leaves (e.g. 1st - 2nd Dynasty, UC35653), vessels shaped to imitate basket-work (e.g. 1st - 2nd Dynasty, UC35654), vessels shaped as hieroglyphic symbols (e.g. 1st Dynasty, libation dish), and even used to imitate metal vessels (e.g. a stone vessel with simulated rivet-heads (Lauer 1976, pl. 109). Many of these sophisticated and creative designs are unique to the Early Dynastic Period, showing a high degree of experimentation in artistic expression during this time.

Fig. 8. Metasiltstone ornamental toilet tray and representation of missing center portion

(after El-Khouli 1978), 1st Dynasty.

(Cairo Museum, Photograph by Jon Bodsworth The Egypt Archive)


Possible Usage for Tri-lobed Bowl

Emery (1972) suggests that the artifact may have been carved in the imitation of a metal vessel's form, with a center hole that was originally designed to fit on a pedestal. Possible competition between metal and stone vessel artisans may have been one of the reasons for the development of artistic expression in ornamental stone vessel forms during the Early Dynastic Period (El-Khouli 1978). William Kay has suggested that the vessel was a ritualistic tri-flamed oil lamp, in which bundles of rushes, immersed in oil, acted as the wicks. These bundles of rushes were held in place by the lobes, and the vessel was suspended on a pedestal inserted through the center. Whether it was actually used for this purpose is uncertain. The fragile nature of such an intricately carved stone object greatly limits is practical usage and suggests a purely ornamental function, being of a religious or other such ritualistic purpose.

Although it has been suggested the vessel was meant to be held on a pedestal, the center tube may also have been used as a stand for holding another vessel or object. Smith (1981) has suggested that the center tube was a container. Tubes of rock were used by the ancient Egyptians to hold round-bottomed vessels, and there are many examples of these throughout the dynastic Egypt, including from the Early Dynastic Period (El-Khouli 1978).

Another object that resembles the tri-lobed bowl is a clay snakes figurine from the Nagada II period (Petrie c1974, Fig. 9, UC15361). The object consists of a round disk with four snakes, in which three are represented as raised heads (possibly cobras) orientated at 120 degrees around a central, round-shaped vessel with a fourth snake appearing to drink from it, and three horn-shaped indentations around the periphery. The three raised snakes each has an extra eye on their backs made of ostrich eggshell.

Fig. 9. Clay snakes figurine (UC15361) from Nagada II Period.

(height 10.5 cm. The Petrie Museum, Photograph by Jon Bodsworth The Egypt Archive)


The use of these early figurines and their religious or magical significance to the ancient Egyptians is not well understood. Animal figurines were often associated with offerings to religious shrines for a variety of early deities. There are a number of Predynastic objects, as well, that depict a close association between snakes (serpents or cobras) and elephants. These snakes either lead or are underneath elephants in a procession (Fig. 10, UC15266), and are often associated with many other animals, including lions, birds, horned oxen, and other quadrupeds. In some examples, these snakes are thought to represent early depictions of the uraeus cobra because of the raised head and neck typical of these species of snakes (Johnson 1990). The horn shaped indentation around the periphery of the clay figurine above may be a simplified representation of an elephant in the form of a tusk-shaped symbol, and 3 associated serpents/cobras leading them in procession.


Although the other Predynastic objects do not depict what the serpents are actually leading the procession of animals to, in the case of the clay figurine above it may be that this is some form of liquid. This liquid may represent a source of water, since snakes during dry seasons are usually found in close proximity to water, and the Nile during inundation usually flushes them out of the area in great numbers. If this is the case, the snakes may be symbolically leading game animals to areas where they can congregate in proximity to water, such as an oasis or the Nile, so that hunting of them could be more easily accomplished. Whether the tri-lobed bowl represents a similar symbolism is uncertain, although the lobes resemble the shapes of serpent/cobras heads in an abstract form, the biconvex shape is common to the representation of intertwined snakes (Fig. 10 a-b), and a central tube suggests a stand for a vessel.

Fig. 10. Late Predynastic urael

a) Brooklyn knife handle (c. 3200-3000 BC),

b) "Carnarvon" knife handle (c. 3200 BC),

c) "Davis" comb handle (c. 3200 BC)

(after Johnson 1991).

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