It has been a very busy year for Egyptologists as they continue to explore and conserve Egypt’s vast heritage and mysterious history, which always produces new and interesting stories to tell.
This year witnessed exceptional discoveries, among the most compelling being the Asasif cachette in Luxor, described as happening once in a century, a collection of lion-cub mummies, and the exceptional painted tomb of Khuwy in Saqqara chosen as a top 10 discovery in 2019.
Groundwater-lowering projects at three archaeological sites in Alexandria and Upper Egypt were completed, and three pyramids were opened to visitors for the first time in decades, along with dozens of ancient Egyptian tombs and Islamic, Coptic and Jewish monuments all over Egypt.
New provincial museums were opened and development projects implemented at archaeological sites along with the restoration and re-erection of two colossi of Ramses II in Luxor and Sohag.
As foreign and Egyptian archaeological missions resumed working and digging at the country’s archaeological sites, several new discoveries were made, some of which caught the headlines.
THE ASASIF CACHETTE
Coffins at Asasif cachette
The Asasif cachette was a ground-breaking discovery and one of the most important and biggest of its kind in a century.
It consists of a collection of 30 intact, intricately painted and sealed wooden coffins found in a cachette at the Asasif Necropolis on Luxor’s west bank neighbouring the Temple of Hatshepsut. They are exceptionally beautiful and feature vivid coloured scenes.
The coffins still house their mummies, which belong to a group of 23 22nd-Dynasty priests and five priestesses of the deities Amun and Khonsu, along with two children. CT scans carried out on three of the mummies of a woman, a man, and a child have revealed that the mummies are in a very good condition. The woman died at the age of 35, while the man died in his 50s and the child died when he was 10 years old.
The scans showed that the mummy of the child had two golden bracelets in his hands. More scientific studies will be carried out on the mummies, as well as DNA analysis, in order to discover their lineage and links with each other.
This is the first cachette of coffins to be uncovered in Luxor since the end of the 19th century. Other cachettes found in the area include those of the royal mummies at Deir Al-Bahari, discovered in 1881, and of king Amenhotep II’s coffin, unveiled in 1898. A cachette of priests’ coffins in the Bab Al-Gussess area was also unearthed in 1891.
The largest saff tomb to be found in the Theban Necropolis was uncovered in the Draa Abul-Naga area on Luxor’s west bank this year.
A saff tomb is a type of rock-hewn tomb used during the 11th Dynasty. The newly discovered one belonged to a holder of the king’s funerary cones named Shedsu-Djehuty. It has painted walls with scenes depicting the deceased before the gods and scenes showing daily life, the fabrication of wooden boats, hunting and fishing. Pots and ushabti figurines made of faience, clay and wood, were also unearthed, as were canopic jars and an anthropoid cartonnage sarcophagus.
The discovery of this tomb may change the archaeological map of the site as well as provide a new understanding of the architecture of individual tombs in the Draa Abul-Naga Necropolis.
Maze of mummies at Tuna Al-Gabal
An industrial zone for the fabrication of funerary collections was uncovered in the Valley of the Monkeys on Luxor’s west bank this year.
The discovery was made by an Egyptian team led by Egyptian Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who described it as unique in the area. The zone contains an oven used for clay products and a water storage tank used by workmen to drink from. A scarab ring and hundreds of inlay beads and golden objects used to decorate royal coffins were also discovered at the site.
The Saqqara Necropolis continues to reveal its secrets, as hundreds of artefacts, sufficient to form a museum in themselves, were unearthed this year.
The collection includes two mummified lion cubs, a large collection of mummified mongooses, the god Anubis in animal form, and statuettes of dozens of cats, falcons, ibex, crocodiles, cobras and scarabs. A collection of statues of ancient Egyptian deities was also unearthed, including those of the gods Osiris, Ptah-Soker, the lioness god Sekhmet, and a beautifully carved statue of the goddess Neith wearing the crown of Lower Egypt, considered to be a masterpiece.
Among the objects unearthed were five mummies of big cats, two of which seem to be of lion cubs. Studies carried out on these two mummies show that they belong to eight-month-old lion cubs, according to the length and shape of their bones, but more studies will be carried out to be 100 per cent sure of these results. The other three mummies of big cats will also be X-rayed to determine their species.
THE TOMB OF KHUWY
The front façade of Luxor Temple
During an excavation and documentation survey in South Saqqara, a superbly painted tomb of a Fifthth-Dynasty dignitary named Khuwy was uncovered this year.
Its decoration represents the tomb-owner sitting in front of an offering table on the south and north walls. There is an offering list on the east wall and a palace façade painted on the west wall.
The US Archaeology Magazine selected this tomb as one of its top 10 discoveries worldwide in 2019 and featured one of its walls on the cover of its January/February 2020 issue. Egyptologist Mohamed Megahed, who led the discovery mission, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the magazine had selected the tomb because of its distinguished paintings that still bear their original vivid colours.
It also has an important architectural design similar to the designs of royal pyramids, he said. A third reason for the selection was that the human remains of Khuwy show clear traces of mummification, which was otherwise only used by royal figures.
Sunken cities’ exhibition
Roman catacombs dating between the first and second centuries CE were found in North Saqqara this year, the first Roman catacombs to be uncovered in Saqqara.
They consist of a vaulted mud brick structure with a staircase leading to a rock-cut chamber with a niche holding a round-topped stele depicting the deities Sokar, Thoth, and Anubis, under which is a two-line Greek inscription.
In front of the stele, five terracotta figurines of Isis-Aphrodite and small pottery vessels were found. The Japanese-Egyptian mission directed by Nozomu Kawai of Kanazawa University in Japan also found a pair of symmetrical guardian lion statues made of limestone, each measuring 55cm in length, 33cm in height, and 19cm in width.
A number of human remains, including mummies, were also found.
THE TOMB OF TOUTOU
In the Al-Dayabat area in the Upper Egyptian Sohag governorate, illicit excavations led to an exceptionally well-painted Ptolemaic-era tomb of a nobleman called Toutou and his wife being discovered this year.
The tomb was accidentally discovered when the Tourism and Antiquities Police arrested a gang that was carrying out illegal excavations in an area near the Al-Dayabat archaeological mound. After the completion of the investigations, an archaeological mission started excavations and entered the magnificently painted tomb.
A number of mummified animals and birds were found in the tomb, including of falcons, eagles, cats, dogs and shrews.
RAMSES II TEMPLE PALACE
A new temple palace belonging to the 19th-Dynasty king Ramses II was uncovered in his temple in Abydos near Sohag in Upper Egypt this year.
The discovery was made by a New York University mission directed by Sameh Iskander, who described it as an important contribution to the understanding of the development of temple palaces during the Ramesside period as well as changing, for the first time, the plan of the temple more than 160 years after its discovery.
The location and layout of the palace exhibits a noteworthy parallel to the temple palace of Ramses II’s father Seti I in Abydos some 300m to the south.
The Ka’s bust
A maze of Ptolemaic burial chambers filled with more than 40 mummies of different sizes and genders, including men, women and children, was discovered at Tuna Al-Gabal in Minya in Upper Egypt this year.
All are in a good conservation condition, and some are wrapped in linen or decorated with demotic handwriting. Some of them still have fragments of coloured cartonnage covers near their feet. The discovery was made by a joint mission from the Ministry of Antiquities and the Research Centre for Archaeological Studies at Minya University.
The newly discovered burial chambers are part of a familial grave which was probably for a family from the upper middle classes.
A SMALL SPHINX
In the Kom Al-Luly area east of Tuna Al-Gabal, a small royal statue in the shape of a sphinx was unearthed inside a Late Period house that was probably used by priests.
The sphinx is carved in limestone and is 35cm tall and 55cm in length. More studies will be carried out to identify reasons behind its being in the area.
OLD KINGDOM CEMETERY
Several tombs and burial shafts from a limestone family tomb from the Fifth Dynasty (c 2500 BCE) retaining some inscriptions and artwork were uncovered on the Giza Plateau this year.
The discovery was made beside the Pyramid builders’ cemetery. The newly discovered tombs belong to two people, the first being Behnui-Ka, whose name has not previously been found on the Giza Plateau. He has seven titles, among them priest, judge, and purifier of the kings Khafre, Userkaf and Niuserr.
The second tomb-owner, Nwi Who, has five titles, among them chief of the great state, overseer of the new settlements, and purifier of Khafre. Many artefacts were discovered in the tomb, among the most significant being a fine limestone statue of one of the tomb’s owners and his wife and son.
Many Late Period wooden painted and decorated anthropoid coffins were discovered on the site, some of them with hieroglyphic inscriptions.
Obelisk at the New Administrative Capital
EVENTS AND OPENINGS
Three groundwater-lowering projects in Alexandria’s Kom Al-Shuqafa Catacombs, Sohag’s Osirion Temple, and Aswan’s Kom Ombo Temples were completed this year after decades of problems owing to high levels of ground water.
The construction of the Aswan High Dam contributed to the increase in the level of subterranean water inside the Osirion and Kom Ombo Temples as well as the urban and agricultural development of Abydos and Kom Ombo.
In Kom Al-Shuqafa, high humidity caused by the nearby Mahmoudiya Canal and the increase of urban development continued to cause the flaking of the bedrock that damaged relief decorations and caused the growth of green algae.
The three projects came within the work of the Ministry of Antiquities to protect Egypt’s archaeological sites from high levels of subterranean water as well as to restore, preserve and protect the country’s world-class monuments.
Work at the Kom Al-Shuqafa Catacombs and the Kom Ombo Temples was carried out in cooperation with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Authority for Potable Water and Sewerage (NAPWAS). The Osirion project was completed in collaboration with the National Contracting and Supplies Authority. It aimed at reducing the water level through digging wells equipped with electronic water stations to pump water outside the monuments to the main drainage system.
RAMSES II COLOSSI
Two colossi of king Ramses II were restored, reassembled, and re-erected in their original location this year.
The first one is located at the Sohag Open-Air Museum in Akhmim beside the beautiful colossus of the king’s daughter-queen Merit-Amun. The second is located at the first pylon of the Luxor Temple on Luxor’s east bank. Both colossi were found in pieces and kept for decades on wooden beams for protection beside their original locations.
The statue in Akhmim is 12m tall and weighs 45 tons, while the one in Luxor is 12m tall and weighs 60 tons.
LAHOUN AND DAHSHOUR BENT AND SATELLITE PYRAMIDS
Three pyramids were opened to visitors for the first time this year, including the Lahoun Pyramid in Fayoum and king Senefru’s Bent and Satellite Pyramids in Dahshur.
The conservation work on the Lahoun Pyramid included the removal of debris found inside its corridors and burial chamber, installing wooden stairs to facilitate its entrance, re-installing the fallen stones in the hall and corridor of its original location, restoring the deteriorated stones on its floors, and installing a new lighting system.
Guide panels and signboards were also provided at the site. The restoration work on the Senefru Pyramids involved the consolidation of their inner structures and walls, as well as installing external and internal lighting systems and wooden ramps and stairs to facilitate visitors.
KHOND ASLABAY MOSQUE
After six years of closure, the Khond Aslabay Mosque in Fayoum opened to worshipers and visitors this year.
The restoration of the mosque revealed the beauty of the minbar and mihrab, the pulpit and prayer niche, in the building. The walls and the pillars of the mosque were consolidated, and damaged tiles on the floor were repaired and reinstalled in their original location.
YOUSSEF KAMAL PALACE
The early 20th-century palace of prince Youssef Kamal in Nag Hammadi re-opened after restoration this year.
It was built in 1908 by Slovenian architect Antonio Lasciac, who also designed the Khedival Palace in Istanbul, the Tahra Palace in Cairo, and the Raml Railway Station in Alexandria.
The palace complex is in an Islamic architectural style, with red and burned brick facing like in the style of buildings in Rosetta. It consists of three palaces, including the main Palace where prince Youssef Kamal lived and the haramlek he built for his mother and sisters. The third palace is the salamlek used for meetings and guests. There were also other buildings in the complex that were used for kitchens, the laundry, and a house for the head of services.
A collection of more than 500 objects from the prince’s personal belongings is exhibited inside the palace. It includes his bedroom, a collection of porcelain plates, and forks, knives and spoons as well as vases and decorative items.
The 18th-century Monastery of Saint Bidaba in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt was inaugurated after restoration this year.
The work focused on three chapels, whose holding walls were consolidated, cracks repaired, and void spaces filled with the same material as the original bricks in order to ensure that all the original architectural features were retained.
The wooden surfaces, ceilings and decorations were cleaned, treated, and covered with a layer of special insulating material to protect them from heat and humidity. A new lighting system was installed along with modern toilets.
The monastery has been on Egypt’s Heritage List since 1992. It is attributed to Bidaba, the bishop of Qeft, who was killed during the persecution of the Christians by the Romans between 303 and 311 CE. Bishop Bidaba built his own cell for prayer on the site of the monastery during the third century CE, and it is believed to have been the first cell to be built where the monastery stands today.
TUTANKHAMUN’S OUTER COFFIN
Almost a century after its discovery, the largest outer gilded coffin of the ancient Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun was transported from its original location in the king’s tomb in Luxor to the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) on the Giza Plateau for restoration.
The coffin was the only one left in the boy-king’s tomb after the removal of two others to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 1922.
Regretfully, time has taken its toll on the coffin, and it is suffering from varied forms of decay, showing cracks in its gilded layers. After restoration the coffin will be put on display at the GEM among the rest of the boy-king’s treasured collection, including two coffins now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
OBELISKS IN SQUARES
Three obelisks of king Ramses II that once soared inside his temple at the San Al-Haggar archaeological site in the Sharqiya governorate, whose monuments collapsed after a destructive earthquake hit Egypt in ancient times, were transported to decorate several areas after restoration and re-assembly.
The obelisks are carved in red granite and decorated with scenes depicting Ramses II standing before the gods with his different titles written alongside him. One of the obelisks will decorate Tahrir Square in Cairo, the second will be put on special display in the GEM’s Hanging Obelisk Square, and a third is decorating the entrance to the Art and Culture City in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital.
A fourth obelisk, which was displayed in the Andalus Garden in Zamalek, has been transported to Alexandria where it will decorate the New Alamein City.
INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS OF EGYPTOLOGY
Egypt hosted the 12th International Congress of Egyptology (ICE) in November in collaboration with the International Association of Egyptologists (ICE).
The congress, one of the world’s most important scientific conferences in the field of Egyptology, is held periodically every four years to discuss the latest in Egyptological research.
This was the fourth session of the congress to be hosted by Egypt. The previous three were the first ICE in 1976, the fifth in 1988, and the eighth in 2000. It was last held in Florence in Italy in 2015, and the 13th session will take place in Leiden in the Netherlands in 2023.
From 3 to 8 November, 600 scholars, archaeologists, heritage experts, Egyptologists and students from Egypt and 30 foreign countries gathered at the ICE venue to share knowledge about Egyptology and solve the secrets of the ancient Egyptian civilisation, considered the oldest and one of the greatest in the world.
Four prominent Egyptologists were honoured for their efforts in Egyptology: Stefan Seidlmayer from Germany, Sakuji Yoshimura from Japan, Mark Lehner from the United States, and Zahi Hawass from Egypt. Three gala dinners were also organised at the Giza Plateau, the Prince Mohamed Ali Palace in Manial, and the Citadel in Cairo.
This year, Paris and London fell under the spell of the golden boy-king Tutankhamun as an exhibition of his treasured collection opened in both cities.
The “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibition, which opened in March at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, attracted over 1.4 million visitors, setting a new record as the most visited exhibition in France.
The London exhibition opened its doors in November at the Saatchi Gallery and sold more than 300,000 tickets before its opening.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.