The Saqqara Necropolis outside Cairo continues to reveal its secrets, with its sands having concealed ancient Egyptian royal and noble tombs for millennia that once belonged to some of Egypt’s most-distinguished ancient rulers and officials.
Saqqara’s most exceptional masterpiece is the funerary complex of the founder of the ancient Egyptian Third-Dynasty king Djoser. The site was exploited as a necropolis from the First Dynasty until the end of the Old Kingdom with periods of abandonment before being developed again during the New Kingdom.
It has been explored for the last 150 years, allowing the discovery of many tombs and pyramids, most of which date from the Old Kingdom. The remains of these make it possible to understand how the people of the time once lived.
Over recent years, the necropolis has been revealing more of its secrets, as Egyptian and foreign excavators have unveiled several important discoveries, among them a Sixth-Dynasty mummification workshop complex including an embalmer’s cachette of pottery and a 30-metre-deep communal burial shaft with six tombs containing around 54 mummies and skeletons.
They have also uncovered the tomb of the Fifth-Dynasty priest Wahti, a cachette of mummified cats, crocodiles, serpents and scarabs, and the tomb of the Fifth-Dynasty nobleman Khuwy with a well-painted antechamber.
This pattern continued on Saturday when Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany, Minister of State for Information Osama Heikal, and renowned Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, along with 60 foreign ambassadors from 43 countries and their families and reporters from more than 200 Egyptian and international news agencies, TV channels and newspapers, were at the Sacred Animal Cemetery at Saqqara to witness the announcement of a major discovery that the ministry promoted three weeks ago through two short teasers on media and social-media platforms.
Egyptian archaeologists have succeeded in unearthing a collection of 59 intact and sealed anthropoid coffins that were buried inside three burial shafts of 10 to 12 metres deep more than 2,500 years ago. Despite their being beneath the sand for millennia, the coffins are very well preserved and still retain their original colours.
On site, almost 40 anthropoid painted coffins were placed beside each other in a large tent, while invitees gazed at them with astonishment. Some were walking around, trying to catch a glimpse of the mummy inside a coffin or taking photographs of their beautiful painted surfaces. At neighbouring tombs, the rest of the discovered coffins were put on display.
The coffins were discovered in three phases. The first was uncovered in early September, when 13 wooden intact and sealed coffins were found inside an 11-metre-deep burial shaft with two sealed niches. Opening one of them, a collection of smaller artefacts was found, including 28 painted wooden statues of the god Ptah Soker, the main god of the Saqqara Necropolis, and ushabti figurines made of faience.
The second phase of the discovery took place after almost ten days of the first one when Egyptian archaeologists stumbled upon another 10-metre-deep burial shaft located adjacent to the first. Excavations inside this shaft revealed another collection of 14 coffins found on top of each other.
All the 27 coffins are completely sealed and intact, and more excavations have revealed that more coffins are present in the same location but in a third burial shaft 12 metres deep.
There are now 59 coffins, all in very good condition and most of them bearing their original colours. A beautifully carved 35cm-tall bronze statuette of the god Nefertum inlaid with precious stones has also been found, with the name of its owner, the priest Badi-Amun, written on its base.
Preliminary studies have shown that the coffins belong to 26th-Dynasty priests, officials, and members of the elite. There are mummies in the majority of the coffins, and more studies will be carried out in order to find out more about these and the purpose behind the coffins being buried on top of each other in a burial shaft and not inside tombs.
Two coffins were opened live on site in front of the attendees on Saturday, revealing two mummies wrapped in linen decorated with gilded decorations and painted faces. “It is a very exciting discovery,” El-Enany told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that the discovery was the largest number of coffins to be found in one burial site since the discovery of the Assasif Cachette in 2019 in Luxor, where 30 sealed and intact coffins were unearthed.
El-Enany thanked the excavation workers for operating in difficult conditions while adhering to coronavirus-related safety measures. “I think it’s only the beginning of the new discoveries,” El-Enany said, saying that he believed that more coffins would be found. He added that the coffins would be transferred to the Grand Egyptian Museum to be displayed in the hall adjacent to the one housing the Assasif Cachette.
He also described last Saturday’s presentation of the discovery as important because it highlighted the uniqueness of Egypt in its diversity. The participation of the foreign ambassadors and their families in the announcement of the discovery reflected their full support for the country’s heritage and tourism, El-Enany said.
OTHER DISCOVERIES: Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and head of the mission, explained that the coffins discovery was not the first to be uncovered at the Sacred Animals Necropolis in Saqqara.
Since 2018, the mission had succeeded in uncovering several other major discoveries, he said, among them the “exceptionally well-preserved” tomb of a Fifth-Dynasty royal purification priest named Wahti from the reign of king Nefer Ir-Ka-Re.
The tomb is exceptionally well-preserved and painted, with walls decorated with colourful scenes depicting the owner with his mother, wife, and family, as well as a number of niches with large coloured statues of the deceased and his family. “It is a one-of-a-kind discovery over recent decades,” Waziri said.
He added that the tomb’s walls had several coloured inscriptions showing the name of the wife of the tomb’s owner — Weret Ptah — and many scenes featuring the deceased with his mother, Merit Meen, and his family, as well as scenes depicting the making of pottery and wine and religious offerings, as well as musical performances, boats sailing on the river, the manufacture of the funerary furniture, and hunting.
Inside the tomb, there are 18 niches displaying statues depicting the owner of the tomb and his family. The lower part of the tomb contains 26 small niches with 31 statues of a yet unidentified person standing or in the seated scribe position.
At the same necropolis, Waziri continued, the mission had succeeded in uncovering seven tombs, inside which it had found the first ever scarab mummies discovered there, with two large mummies of scarabs having been found inside a rectangular limestone sarcophagus with a vaulted lid decorated with three scarabs painted in black.
The scarabs are wrapped in linen and in a very good condition. Another collection of scarab mummies was also found inside a smaller square limestone sarcophagus decorated with one painted black scarab.
Dozens of cat mummies were also unearthed, along with 100 wooden statues of cats and a bronze one dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet. A collection of wooden gilded statues depicting the physical features of a lion, a cow, and a falcon was also unearthed. Painted wooden sarcophagi of cobras with mummies found inside them were discovered along with two wooden sarcophagi of crocodiles.
Around 1,000 amulets made of faience dedicated to different deities, including Tawesert, Apis, Anubis, Djehuty, Horus, Isis, Ptah Patek, and Khnum, were discovered, as well as other faience amulets in the shape of the Udjat eye, the white and red crowns of ancient Egypt, and the Wadjat column.
A large collection of 75 wooden and bronze cat statues of different shapes and sizes, a group of mummified cats found inside 25 wooden boxes with lids decorated with hieroglyphic texts, and wooden statues of animals and birds, including the Apis bull, the mongoose, the ibis, the falcon and the ancient Egyptian god Anubis in animal form, were also uncovered on site.
The mission also found a large scarab made of stone hidden inside a wooden box, two small scarabs made of wood and sandstone, and three statues of crocodiles inside which were the remains of the mummies of small crocodiles.
A collection belonging to ancient Egyptian deities was also unearthed, including 73 bronze statuettes depicting the god Osiris, six wooden statues of the god Ptah-Soker, and 11 wooden and faience statues of the lioness god Sekhmet, as well as a beautifully carved statue of the goddess Neith wearing the crown of Lower Egypt.
A relief bearing the name of king Psamtik I was also discovered, along with a collection of the statues of cobras, amulets, faience amulets of different shapes and sizes, wooden and clay masks of mummies, and a collection of papyri decorated with drawings showing the goddess Tawert. These artefacts belong to the 26th Dynasty of the seventh century BCE, regarded as a renaissance era in ancient Egypt.
Waziri said that the most distinguished items in the discovery were the five mummies of big cats, probably of lion cubs. According to CT-scans carried out on two of these mummies, there is a 95 per cent chance that the mummies belong to lion cubs, based on the size and shape of their bones, he added.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly