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Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Egyptian heritage: Astonishing discoveries in 2018

Egypt announced a flurry of astonishing new discoveries, archaeological events and exhibitions abroad this year

Nevine El-Aref , Monday 31 Dec 2018
discovery
The tomb of the royal purification priest
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This year has seen a wealth of new archaeological discoveries and the opening or re-opening of many attractions and facilities, among the most compelling being the discovery of a gilded mummy mask at Saqqara that was chosen as one of the top 10 discoveries of 2018. 

Another fascinating find was the animal cemetery in Saqqara and the identification of a ramp network that the ancient Egyptians used to transport the blocks used to construct the Pyramids from the Hatnub alabaster quarries to the Giza Plateau.

SAQQARA DISCOVERIES

The Saqqara Necropolis witnessed distinguished discoveries this year and the opening of a tomb for the first time. 

An Egyptian mission has unearthed an exceptionally well preserved Fifth Dynasty tomb of the royal purification priest during king Nefer-Ir-Ka-Re in Saqqara Necropolis.

The tomb’s walls are decorated with coloured scenes depicting the deceased with his mother, wife and children as well as others depicting the fabrication of pottery, wine, offering, musical performances, the sailing of boats, the manufacturing of the funerary furniture and hunting. A number of niches with large coloured statues of the deceased and his family are also found inside the tomb. 

An Egyptian-German team from the University of Tubingen that is carrying out the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project uncovered a Saite-Persian mummification workshop including an embalmer’s cachette of pottery, a mummification site, and a communal complex of burial chambers along with a gilded silver mummy mask, a large number of beakers, bowls and amphorae inscribed with names of mummification oils and substances, and embalmer’s instructions.

The vessels preserved sizable amounts of the residue of these substances, making them dream material for decoding the secrets of mummification. They are now being tested by an Egyptian-German team. The discoveries, especially the mask, were chosen by the US Archaeology magazine as among the top 10 discoveries of the year.

Meanwhile, at the neighbouring Userkaf Pyramid Complex, an Egyptian mission uncovered dozens of mummified cats and meticulously mummified scarab beetles along with other animal mummies of cobras and crocodiles. The mummies were found inside two Old Kingdom tombs that were used during the Late Period as graves for animals.

The last discovery to be announced in 2018 was the tomb of a royal purification priest from the reign of the Fifth-Dynasty king Nefererkare. The tomb is exceptionally well-preserved, with painted walls featuring the deceased in different positions with his family along with scenes showing musical performances and the making of wine and pots. 

It is also decorated with a number of niches containing a large collection of statuettes depicting the deceased, his wife, mother and children.

The mastaba tomb of the Sixth-Dynasty justice and vizier Mehu located to the south of the Djoser Pyramid Complex was opened for the first time since its discovery almost 80 years ago. It is a vast tomb with lavish wall paintings and scenes depicting the baking of bread, the brewing of beer, and the preparing of meals. Cultivation, hunting and offering scenes are also shown on its walls.

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An 18th Dynasty sarcophagus with a mummy of a lady

THE EASTERN DESERT

A mission from the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology and Liverpool University in the UK discovered the system used to drag massive stone Pyramid blocks from their quarry to the Giza Plateau this year.

It includes the remains of a central ramp flanked by two staircases with numerous post holes. The system was discovered in Hatnub, an ancient quarry in the Eastern Desert. It would have been used to transport heavy alabaster stones up a steep ramp, possibly showing how the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid. 

Through using a toboggan attached with ropes to wooden posts which carried a stone block, the ancient Egyptians were able to pull the alabaster blocks out of the quarry on a very steep slope of 20 per cent or more. The ropes attached to the sled acted as a force multiplier, making it easier to pull the sled up the ramp.

THE GIZA PLATEAU

At the Giza Western Cemetery, an Egyptian archaeological mission uncovered the luxurious tomb of a priestess of the goddess Hathor named Hetepet.

Although the tomb has a simple superstructure made of mud-brick covered with mortar, its inner walls are painted with rare scenes depicting monkeys in different positions. Monkeys were domestic animals in ancient Egypt, and the first scene shows a monkey picking at fruit, while the second displays a monkey dancing in front of an orchestra.  

The paintings show scenes depicting the tomb’s owner sitting or following farmers harvesting or on a boat crossing the Nile. False doors in the tomb depict images of Hetpet’s children holding offerings and her parents.

ASWAN

An Egyptian archaeological mission working in Kom Ombo in Aswan stumbled upon a sandstone statue of a sphinx dating to the Ptolemaic era on the south-eastern side of the Kom Ombo Temple, the same location where two sandstone reliefs of king Ptolemy V were uncovered. 

The statues are engraved in sandstone and inscribed with hieroglyphic and demotic writings, and upon their discovery they were transferred to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat for conservation and display.

MINYA

A large cachette of figurines and a well-preserved mummy were uncovered in the Al-Ghureifa area in Minya, along with a group of tombs and burials that belong to priests of the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, the main deity of the 15th area and its capital Al-Ashmounein. 

One of the discovered tombs belongs to a high-priest of Thoth named Hersa-Essei. The tomb houses 13 burials in which were found many ushabti figurines carved in faience. A collection of 1,000 figurines was found to be in a very good state of conservation, while other statuettes were found broken in pieces. 

Four canopic jars made of alabaster with lids bearing the faces of the four sons of the god Horus were also unearthed. They still contain the mummified inner organs of the deceased. The jars are decorated with hieroglyphic texts showing the name and titles of their respective owners. 

The mummy of the high-priest Djehuty-Irdy-Es was also found, this being decorated with a bronze collar depicting the god Nut stretching out her wings to protect the deceased according to ancient Egyptian beliefs. It is also decorated with a collection of blue and red precious beads, as well as bronze gilded sheets, two eyes carved in bronze, and ivory and crystal beads. 

Four amulets of semi-precious stones were also found on the mummy. This is decorated with hieroglyphic texts, one of which is engraved with a phrase saying “Happy New Year”. 

The mission working in the area also unearthed 40 limestone sarcophagi of different shapes and sizes, some of them with anthropoid lids decorated with the names and different titles of their owners. 

Another family tomb was uncovered in the nearby cemetery. It houses a collection of gigantic sarcophagi of different shapes and sizes and ushabti figurines bearing the names of their owners who were priests at the time. Other funerary collections showing the skills and tastes of the ancient Egyptians were also found.

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A top-10 winning mask

LUXOR

An Egyptian mission working in the Al-Assassif Necropolis on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor uncovered the tomb of the overseer of the mummification shrine of the Mut Temple, named Thaw-Rakhtif, and explored the entrance of a previously undiscovered tomb, dubbed TT28. 

The walls of the Thaw-Rakhtif tomb are adorned with painted scenes, and it contains two large anthropoid sarcophagi and parts of a funerary collection.

A collection of more than 1,000 ushabti figurines carved in terracotta, faience and wood in different sizes and shapes was unearthed, along with two black wooden statues of the god Padist, painted wooden statuettes, and five funerary masks. Two limestone lids of canopic jars and an alabaster jar adorned with a hieroglyphic text painted in green were unearthed, as well as wooden statues of the god Anubis, a symbolic painted coffin, and parts of statues. A papyrus inscribed with Chapter 125 of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead was among the funerary objects.

In tomb TT33 in Al-Assassif, which belongs to the 26th-Dynasty priest Pediamenopet, two 18th-Dynasty painted coffins were unearthed in the tomb’s open court by a Franco-Egyptian mission from the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology and Strasbourg University in France. 

One is a painted rishi-style sarcophagus from the 17th-Dynasty, and when it was opened it revealed the mummy of a priest. The second houses a very well-preserved mummy of an 18th-Dynasty woman named Thuya, and it seems that it was restored during the Late Period.

Among other important discoveries was a collection of eight mummies from the Ptolemaic era, many of them encased in vividly painted anthropoid cartonage coffins found at the Dahshur Necropolis.

A stone sphinx at Kom Ombo, a riverside temple near Aswan dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek, and the world’s oldest tattoos depicting a bull, a sheep and S-shaped patterns on a pair of 5,000-year-old mummies, were also among 2018 discoveries.

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Sohag National Museum

MUSEUMS

Egypt is in the midst of a museum construction boom, including new collections scheduled to open soon in the Red Sea resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada that will give visitors the chance to explore ancient Egyptian treasures without venturing to Cairo or Luxor.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) on the Pyramids Plateau is nearly complete and is scheduled to open in 2020. It is the world’s largest museum dedicated to a single civilisation.

The museum will showcase 150,000 objects, including every item found in boy-king Tutankhamun’s tomb, many of them never before on public display. The most recent artefact from the tomb to arrive at the GEM was the sixth chariot that had previously been on display at the Military Museum at the Salaheddin Citadel.

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The transportation of Tutankhamun’s chariot

This year also witnessed the last journey of the king Ramses II colossus to its new position at the GEM. The Pharaoh’s statue was preceded on its journey by 11 horsemen in ceremonial dress. As the royal cavalcade rolled along the 400-metre road to the GEM, attendees stood up in their seats to greet the Pharaoh. When the colossus reached its final location, the national anthem was played.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square celebrated its 116th anniversary this year with a comprehensive redesign of the Yuya and Thuya collection on the museum’s upper floor. These were two Egyptian nobles and the grandparents of the monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten. Their daughter was queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III, mother of Akhenaten, and the grandmother of the golden boy-king Tutankhamun. 

The collection includes the anthropoid gilded coffins of the couple, a box coffin, mummy bands, gilded masks, amulets, scarabs, canopic jars, beds, ushabti figurines, magical statues, golden chairs, wigs and baskets, mirrors, kohl tubes and containers, mats, sandals, staves, pottery and stone vessels, jars with embalming products, boxes, jewellery boxes decorated with ivory, faience and ebony inscribed with golden letters. 

One of the most impressive artefacts is a chariot. Although this does not have any decoration, it is beautiful in its simplicity, with spirals and rosettes in gilded plaster.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi officially inaugurated the Sohag National Museum this year, the first in this Upper Egyptian city and a landmark celebrating the ancient Egyptian era and the distinguished history of Sohag as a pilgrimage city of the Pharaohs. 

The museum was inaugurated after almost 30 years of construction work. It does not only display the history of Egypt as a country, but also reveals the history of the ancient cities of Sohag, Abydos and Akhmim, sites that were the origins of Egypt’s ancient civilisation. 

Sohag has rich archaeological sites from the early period up to the Ptolemaic, Graeco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic periods. However, although the governorate contains many distinguished monuments and historical landmarks, it is seldom a destination for visitors.

The Tell Basta Museum in Zagazig in the Delta was also inaugurated after years in limbo. The objects on display come from archaeological excavations in the Sharqiya governorate and include canopic jars, terracotta statuettes, clay pots of different shapes and sizes, domestic instruments, coins, statuettes of deities, tombstones, offering tables and jewellery. 

One of the showcases is devoted to Sharqiya’s main ancient Egyptian deity, the cat-goddess Bastet.

ISLAMIC MONUMENTS 

The inauguration of the maqaad (seat) of prince Mamay Al-Seifi after three years of restoration took place this year within the framework of a larger project aimed at conserving seven monumental buildings within a national campaign launched by the Ministry of Antiquities to rescue 100 monuments in Islamic Cairo with a budget of LE10 million.

The aim of the restoration work on the maqaad was to strengthen and consolidate the monument and protect it from damage. 

The historic Mosque and University of Al-Azhar in Islamic Cairo was officially re-opened by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Saudi crown-prince Mohamed bin Salman in 2018. For the last three years, it has been hiding under scaffolding, with workmen intent on polishing and strengthening its walls.

The restoration work was carried out under the patronage of king Salman bin Abdel-Aziz of Saudi Arabia with a grant from the late king Abdullah, who ordered the initiative before his death with a view to restoring the historic Al-Azhar Mosque and a number of its faculties as well as establishing an integrated residential area for students.

The restoration work was carried out using the latest scientific methods, and every effort was made to ensure that all the original architectural features were retained.

The aim of the restoration was mainly to strengthen the foundations of the mosque and to protect them from damage. The restoration included cleaning and strengthening the building’s architectural designs, wooden ceilings, and mashrabiya (lattice woodwork) windows, as well as its arcades, paintings, engravings and fine metal ornaments. 

The building’s mausoleums, five minarets, and seven painted domes were restored and consolidated, and the work extended to the students’ residential area. The foundations and walls were reinforced, missing and decayed stones replaced, and masonry cleaned and desalinated.

The work involved the modernisation of lighting systems, toilets, drainage, ventilation and sound systems, in accordance with the latest international standards and as used at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, while taking into account the historic nature of Al-Azhar.

MATARIYA

After a decade of closure for development, the Matariya Obelisk Museum was re-opened in 2018 as a new and fascinating archaeological and tourist destination.

The open-air museum displays a 20.4-metre granite obelisk erected by the Middle Kingdom Pharaoh Senusert I, along with a collection of 135 artefacts from different periods.

One of the highlights is a four-metre quartzite statue of Ramses II, along with other objects bearing the names of Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III. More obelisks have also been discovered, such as that of the Sixth-Dynasty Pharaoh Teti, two obelisks of Thutmose III, an obelisk of 19th-Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I, and two more obelisks now on display in London and Rome.

SAN AL-HAGAR

The first phase of converting the ancient site of San Al-Hagar in the Delta into an open-air museum of ancient Egyptian art was completed in 2018, including the re-erection of some of its columns, obelisks and colossi.

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Tutankhamun exhibition in Los Angeles

EXHIBITIONS ABROAD

This year North America fell under the magic of the ancient Egyptians, with two exhibitions in St Louis and Los Angeles being inaugurated as “Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost World” and “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh”.

The Sunken Cities exhibition displays 293 objects excavated from beneath the Mediterranean. It is divided thematically, and among the objects on show are three giant pink granite colossi featuring the Nile god Hapi, a statue of a Ptolemaic king, and an unidentified Egyptian queen dressed as Isis.

There is a customs stelae from Heracleion with inscriptions in hieroglyphics and Greek, a black granite sphinx representing king Ptolemy XII, father of the more famous Cleopatra, a head of Serapis and the “Naos of the Decades”, a black granite shrine covered with figures and hieroglyphic texts relating to the ancient calendar.  

The Tutankhamun exhibition puts on show 149 artefacts. It uses a special lighting system that shows the importance of the objects as well as their skilful craftsmanship.

In Monaco, the “Golden Treasure of the Pharaohs” exhibition displaying 2,500 years of the goldsmiths’ art in ancient Egypt was inaugurated this year. The exhibition was opened by head of state prince Albert II and Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany, who invited the prince to visit Egypt to admire its distinguished monuments and the new Grand Egyptian Museum after its inauguration. He also invited him to take a plunge into the Mediterranean Sea off Alexandria’s eastern harbour where the ancient sunken city of Heracleion is located.

The exhibition included artefacts such as the Yuya and Tuya funerary collection and the Tanis Treasure that will make up the core display of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square and replace the Tutankhamun collection that will be transferred to the new GEM overlooking the Giza Plateau.

This article was previously published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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