The discovery of the ancient Egyptian priest Iufaa’s tomb by a Czech archaeological mission working at Abusir in 1998 made the headlines in every country.
It is very rare to find an intact tomb such as this one. The head of the Czech expedition, Miroslav Verner, said he had never thought he would find an intact tomb. “It was a big surprise to me. I could not sleep at all the night before the opening of the sarcophagus,” Verner said. He added it was a once in a lifetime event for an archeologist to find an intact tomb.
The burial chamber of Iufaa’s tomb was dominated by a huge white limestone sarcophagus weighing about 50 tons and having a rectangular shaped and wide flat lid with lower edges. The chest of the sarcophagus, standing on a platform about 35cm high, was 3.8m long, 3.3m wide, and 1.4m high. The lid, joined to the chest by a thick layer of coarse lime plaster, was about a metre thick.
All four outer faces of the chest of the sarcophagus were completely covered by columns of hieroglyphic inscriptions roughly cut in low relief. The inscriptions on the anthropoid sarcophagus consisted of spells to protect the deceased and seven snakes responsible for protecting him in the afterlife. The uncovered lid had two irregular handles protruding to the east and west, respectively.
According to the inscriptions, the tomb had been built for Iufaa, who was born to a lady called Ankht-es, but the name of the father has not been found. Iufaa held the titles of hrp-hwwt, or director of the palaces, and hry hbt, or lector priest.
Because of the high level of the natural humidity in the tomb, all the pieces of the original burial equipment made of organic matter such as papyrus and wood were found to be badly degraded, and in spite of immediate treatment by conservators at the conservation department at the Saqqara inspectorate, they could only partly be rescued from immediate decomposition.
All the pieces of the original burial equipment found inside the burial chamber as well as other important finds were transferred to a storeroom and when necessary treated by conservators. At the end of the season’s work, the entrance to the burial chamber was officially closed by two blocks and sealed by a committee consisting of the inspectors of antiquities at Saqqara.
In the similar way, the corridors leading to the burial chamber from both smaller shafts were filled with clean sand and their mouths covered with concrete slabs. It was interesting to note at the time that all of the four canopic jars found in the tomb were filled with liquid to the top. One in particular contained a material that had a strong odour that may have come from the remains of the mummification process. I believe that it consisted of the hot resin that each layer of the bondages wrapped around the mummy was drenched in.
The name of Iufaa’s father could not be found, and it was not written anywhere in the tomb. He could have been a friend of Udjhorresnet, found to be a traitor, and this could explain why Iufaa was buried in this isolated area of Abusir.
Finally, the initial opening of this intact tomb was not made public because of fears of tomb robbers in the area. The area was well guarded, and the safety of the contents of the tomb guaranteed.
OPENING THE SARCOPHAGUS
In February 1998, the opening of the sarcophagus in Iufaa’s tomb was carried out very carefully, and all necessary precautions were taken to avoid any miscalculations or accidents.
Verner arrived in Egypt with devices to be used in the lifting of the lid. Much preparation had to be done to prepare to lift the 20-ton lid of the sarcophagus and create access to the opening of the burial chamber.
It is not easy to find the words to describe the courage of the people involved in this project, particularly the workmen. Working in the desert, at the bottom of a huge shaft, was not easy. Every drop of water had to be brought out on the backs of donkeys, along with 30 tons of steel rods (some of them almost 3cm in diameter), cement, wooden beams, and planks. In total about 400 cubic metres of concrete was produced as part of efforts to stabilise the shaft of the tomb and make sure that it could be opened under a safe reinforced concrete gable.
The expedition built a new wooden staircase in preparation for visits to the tomb during the opening. But before the staircase could be built, they had to send down a large wooden sledge that they would use to open the 20-ton lid. The length of the sledge was about 7.5m and weighed 600kg.
After these preparations, Verner met Gaballah Ali, the then secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), and myself to inform us of the opening on 17 February 1998.
I was in Abusir every day before this historic event. An ingenious plan had been drawn up to raise the huge lid of the limestone sarcophagus by a combination of hydraulic and mechanical jacks to the height of about one metre. With the assistance of the workmen, the lid was moved about 2cm until it could be lifted up by the desired one metre. Four long wooden beams were inserted under the raised lid. Two mechanical jacks were then used to push the lid aside to a new resting place.
We were shocked to find beneath the limestone lid an unbelievable surprise. The removal of the lid had revealed a beautiful anthropoid sarcophagus of dark greenish black schist. This anthropoid sarcophagus was firmly embedded in a mould within the limestone chest. The side walls were finely carved. There was fine detail in the face and coloured hieroglyphic inscriptions and scattered vignettes in sunk relief. The opening of the second sarcophagus took place on 25 February 1998.
The ancient Egyptians had put a layer of plaster and mudbrick above the anthropoid coffin to prevent humidity from reaching it. Everyone was afraid that the opening might see a repeat of the empty coffin found in 1954 inside the pyramid of Sekhmet at Saqqara, revealed during a press conference and in front of the prime minister of Egypt.
I told Verner that we should not open the anthropoid sarcophagus until we had had a press conference on 27 February. Then minister of culture Farouk Hosni, Gaballah, the world press and television crews, and a team from the US magazine National Geographic attended the opening of the lid of the anthropoid sarcophagus. Under the completely rotten lid, which turned into powder by the mere touch of a finger, there was the mummy of Iufaa. We were the first to see him since he had been laid to rest 2,500 years before.
The mummy was firmly bound with linen wrappings and glued together by dark resin. Traces of bright gilding remained on the portion of the face that had not been damaged by humidity. A broad collar known to the ancient Egyptians as wesekh went from the neck to the breast. Over the body lay a fragile net, a shroud of blue faience beads, among which were a number of cut-out figures of the goddess Nut of the sky on the chest. There were two figures of the sons of Horus on the thigh and the sister goddesses Isis and Nephtys kneeling at the ankles.
On 1 March, we moved the mummy by police motorcade to Giza for X-ray examination by Eugen Strouhal. He found that Iufaa had died at the age 54, and the mummy was then returned to Abusir.
As I always say, you never know what the sands of Egypt may hide in terms of secrets. My friend the archaeologist Mark Linz later said to me that he would never forget the minute when the sarcophagus was opened, and we smelled the history of 3,000 years around us.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly