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 ancient Egypt’s most-distinguished rulers and officials.
On Saturday, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany and the governor of Giza along with 36 foreign ambassadors to Egypt, renowned Egyptian film stars, top officials and hundreds of Egyptian and international media representatives flocked to the Saqqara Necropolis to witness the announcement of the biggest discovery of 2020.
An Egyptian archaeological mission has uncovered a collection of 100 perfectly preserved intact, sealed, anthropoid ancient Egyptian wooden coffins with intricate painted designs, some of which contain mummies, and 40 wooden statues of Saqqara goddess Ptah Soker, some of which have gilded faces, along with golden funerary masks.
The coffins were found buried on top of each other inside three newly discovered burial shafts of 10 to 12 metres deep that were dug more than 2,500 years ago. Despite their having been beneath the sand for millennia, the coffins are very well preserved and still retain their original colours.
The newly unearthed coffins will soon be distributed between the Cairo Museum in Tahrir Square, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) on the Pyramids Plateau in Giza which is to be inaugurated next year, and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) at Fustat in Cairo.
On site, almost 50 anthropoid painted coffins were placed beside each other in a large tent during the ceremony on Saturday, 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.
The statues were put on display inside glass showcases. In a neighbouring tent, restorers were busy restoring some of the jars and wooden boxes that had been found.
One of the coffins was opened live on site in front of the attendees on Saturday, revealing two mummies wrapped in linen and decorated with gilded decorations and painted faces. An X-ray was conducted on one of the mummies, revealing that the deceased was a man who had died in his 40s, was 175 cm tall, healthy, and had not suffered from any fatal diseases.
Egyptologist Bassem Gehad, who conducted the scan, said the deceased was perfectly mummified with his arms crossed on his chest in a position known in ancient Egypt as the Osiris shape.
“The quantity and quality of the coffins make this discovery special,” said Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), comparing the findings to the 59 coffins discovered on site earlier in October.
El-Enany said the artefacts, including the statues and mummies, would be moved to the Cairo Museum in Tahrir Square, the GEM, the NMEC, and the Capitals Museum in the New Administrative Capital.
El-Enany described the discovery as the biggest in 2020, but by no means the last.
“We have discovered only one per cent of the antiquities buried in the Saqqara Necropolis,” he said. Archaeologists were continuing to excavate the ground, and a new archaeological find at the Saqqara Necropolis would be revealed later this year by another mission led by Egyptian Egyptologist Zahi Hawass.
El-Enany said the most exceptional masterpiece at the necropolis was 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, he said.
It has been explored for the last 150 years, leading to 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 many 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.
Waziri said the coffins were discovered in five 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 almost 10 days after 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 on top of each other.
All the 27 coffins were 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.
The fourth phase revealed 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 was also found, with the name of its owner, the priest Badi-Amun, written on its base.
In mid-October, three other burial shafts were found, and the 100 coffins were unearthed along with the other funerary collections.
Preliminary studies have shown that the coffins belong to 26th-Dynasty priests, officials, and members of the ancient Egyptian 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.
OTHER DISCOVERIES: Waziri explained that the coffins discovery was not the first to be uncovered at the necropolis in Saqqara.
Since 2018, the Egyptian mission has 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 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 in 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, named 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.
In the same necropolis, Waziri said, 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 ancient Egyptian 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 lion goddess 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 statuettes 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 BC, regarded as a renaissance era in ancient Egypt.
Waziri said that the most distinguished items in this part of the discoveries 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 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly