Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Discovery of 30 Egyptian Mummies

by Kathryn Hadley

Yesterday, the Egyptian government announced the discovery (reported by The Associated Press and Reuters) of approximately 30 Egyptian mummies inside a 2,600-year-old tomb at the necropolis of Saqqara, to the south of Cairo. The tomb was discovered at the bottom of a 36-foot deep shaft and the mummies were placed in niches along the tomb’s walls. Eight sarcophagi were also found, one of which contained another mummy. The other seven have yet to be opened, but it is believed that they also contain mummies. The tomb was described by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s top archeologist, as a ‘storeroom for mummies’, which dates back to 640 BC at the time of the 26th Egyptian Dynasty, the last native dynasty to rule the Egyptian kingdom before it was overthrown by the Persians in 525 BC. The tomb is, however, situated at an older site, from the period of the Old Kingdom, approximately 4,300 years ago. Abdel Hakim Karar, an assistant to Hawass, dated the tomb to the Old Kingdom, possibly the Fifth Dynasty, which ruled from approximately 2,494 bc to 2,345 bc.

The majority of the mummies are poorly preserved and archaeologists have yet to identify the bodies and to explain why so many were placed in one room. The name Badi N Huri was engraved in the opened sarcophagus, but the wooden coffin inside did not bear a title for the mummy. According to archaeologists, it is unusual for mummies to be buried in niches as late as the 26th Dynasty. It is also rare to find preserved burials in well-known necropolises such as Saqqara, which served the nearby city of Memphis, the capital of Ancient Egypt, because the tombs were often raided by thieves in ancient times. In the words of Abdel Hakim Karar:

"Niches were known in the very early dynasties, so to find one for the 26th
Dynasty is something rare".

Excavations at Saqqara began 150 years ago and have since uncovered a necropolis of pyramids as well as tombs, mostly from the Old Kingdom. Excavations have primarily focused on just one side of the two main pyramids, the Step Pyramid of King Djoser, one of the largest ancient stone structures in the world dating from about 2,650BC, and the pyramid of Unas, the last king of the Fifth Dynasty. In December, two rock-cut tombs were notably found in the Saqqara necropolis, 400 metres south of the Step Pyramid, near the current discovery site. The tombs were both those of high officials: the first was that of Iya-Maat, who bore the title ‘supervisor of the king’s property’ and was responsible to King Unas for bringing stones from the quarries for the construction of the nearby tombs; the second tomb belonged to Thinh, a Fifth Dynasty singer and, in the words of the engraving at the front of the tomb, the ‘supervisor of all singers’ who was in charge of providing entertainers for the pharaohs.

The area where the current tomb was found, to the southwest of the main pyramids, remains relatively unexplored. According to Hawass, only 30% of Egypt’s pyramids have been uncovered.

For information on ‘mummy making’, read our article The Making of a Modern Mummy

Further information on the discoveries and excavations led by Hawass is available on the official website of Dr Zahi Hawass

The website of the Friends of Saqqara Foundation also provides information on Dutch excavations at Saqqara. It is regularly updated with news of the latest discoveries and provides a useful history of the site of Saqqara

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