On the steps of the Hatshepsut Temple in the Deir Al-Bahari area on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, Egyptologists and the international media gathered earlier this week to witness the announcement of a ground-breaking discovery and one of the most important to be made in a century.
Under large sunshades, a collection of almost two dozen intricately painted and sealed wooden coffins had been spread out, the coffins having been found in a cachette on site and now surrounded by people trying to catch a glimpse of their exceptional beauty and vivid colours.
Thirty intact, sealed and painted anthropoid coffins of a group of 22nd Dynasty priests and priestesses of the deities Amun and Khonsu had been unearthed in a cachette at the Asasif Necropolis in Luxor.
During the subsequent press conference, restorers and archaeologists opened two coffins of a man and a woman, revealing very well-preserved mummies wrapped in linen.
“This is the first cachette of coffins to be uncovered in Luxor since the end of the 19th century,” Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany said, describing the 3,000-year-old coffins as “exceptionally well-preserved and superbly well-painted in vivid colours”.
Other cachettes found in Luxor include those of the royal mummies at Deir Al-Bahari, discovered in 1881, and king Amenhotep II’s coffin, unveiled in 1898. A cachette of priests’ coffins in the Bab Al-Gussess area was also unearthed in 1891.
El-Enany said that the coffins contained the mummies of 23 men, five women, and two children, all believed to be from the middle class. Although the mummies were found completely wrapped in cloth, their genders could be identified according to the shapes of the hands on the coffin’s lids.
Coffins carved with hands open are for female mummies, while if the hands are balled into fists, they hold males.
El-Enany said that the cachette had been found accidently when archaeologists were excavating the area located on top of tomb TT28 in the Asasif Necropolis. A workman found himself face-to-face with what appeared to be an anthropoid coffin.
When he continued digging, a cachette of coffins was uncovered, with the mummies arranged in two layers on top of each other, only 15 metres under the sand. The top level housed 18 coffins, while the second contained 12. All the coffins will be restored and taken to the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) to be displayed in a special hall.
“I am very proud that the discovery of such a cachette was made by Egyptian archaeologists,” El-Enany said, refuting rumours claiming that the cachette was discovered in 1967 and re-buried due to the war at that time.
He described these rumours as “unfounded” and aimed at undermining the work of Egyptian archaeologists and the ministry’s success in drawing the world’s attention to Egypt and its ancient civilisation.
Mohamed Saleh, former director of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that during the 1960s he had been director of Al-Gourna Antiquities on Luxor’s West Bank, which is responsible for the Asasif Necropolis.
The coffins had not been found before and re-buried, he said.
“It is not even logical to transport the coffins from the eastern side to the western side of Luxor to re-bury them in the sand. It would have been wiser to hide them in a storehouse,” he asserted.
“If these claims are right, which I totally refuse to admit, why did Egyptologists not reveal the coffins at the time and put them on display,” he asked.
VERY IMPORTANT DISCOVERY: “It is the biggest discovery of the past few years,” said Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), describing the Asasif cachette.
Some coffins were found painted with scenes from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead and the titles of the deceased, while others were partly painted and the rest were plain, he said.
“More research will be conducted on the coffins and the mummies inside them to reveal more of the cachette’s secrets,” Waziri said, explaining that the coffins were grouped and hidden in the cachette by an ancient Egyptian priest of the late 22nd Dynasty to protect the bodies of his ancestors during the unrest caused by tomb robbers.
During the 10th century BCE, almost 3,000 years ago, tomb robbers spread across the country, stealing funerary collections found in tombs and destroying the coffins and mummies along the way.
The elaborate decorations on the coffins were likely to have compensated for the fact that they weren’t buried in proper tombs, Waziri said. The similarity in the design suggested that they were all made in the same workshop, he added.
Al-Tayeb Abbas, director of archaeological affairs at the GEM and a specialist in ancient Egyptian coffins, told the Weekly that the newly discovered cachette provided evidence of the different stages of manufacturing coffins during the 22nd Dynasty. Some of them were completely finished and decorated with coloured scenes, while others were still in their initial stages of manufacturing, and a third group had been left without any decoration, he said.
The inscriptions decorating the sides of the coffins represent various themes, including scenes of offerings and chapters from the Book of the Dead, as well as the profiles of different deities worshipped in the period. Scenes showing offerings to deified kings such as Amenhotep I, who was worshiped in the Deir Al-Bahari area, also appear on the coffins, as well as the different titles of the deceased, including “singer of the god Amun” and the texts for speeches of the gods.
“This cachette bears witness to a historical period of instability in which tomb robberies spread and the construction of huge cemeteries was reduced. Coffins played an important role to preserve the body of the deceased, and the scenes that previously decorated the tomb’s walls were put on the sides of the coffins,” Abbas said.
He added that the scenes and texts illustrate the connection of the cachette to the area and the goddess Hathor and king Amenhotep I, who were worshipped in the Deir Al-Bahari area, of which the necropolis is a part.
He said the ancient Egyptians had selected the place to be the cachette of priests because it was the safest place in the Theban Necropolis during a period when even the royal tombs were subject to thefts.
“The coffins will be transported to the GEM as a new surprise to visitors upon the museum’s opening in 2020,” El-Enany said.
Renowned Egyptologist Zahi Hawass described the discovery as “fantastic” and told the Weekly that finds of coffins belonging to children were a rare occurrence, a fact that had caused tremendous interest worldwide.
The inscriptions are unique because of the vivid colours used, he said, which had stayed intact even though the coffins had been buried for thousands of years.
Hawass said that the discovery revealed important details about ancient Egyptian burial rites, such as how they respected the dead regardless of gender or age. “This will enrich our knowledge as Egyptologists about the ancient Egyptian belief in the afterlife,” Hawass said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.