The intact tomb of the ancient Egyptian priest and palace controller Iufaa was found on the site of the “forgotten kings of the Fifth Dynasty” of the Old Kingdom (c 2450-2321 BCE) at Abusir, since despite the size of their monuments these kings do not share the fame and renown accorded to their colleagues of the Fourth Dynasty, the builders of the Giza Pyramids.
Abusir is located about six miles to the south of the Great Pyramid of Khufu and the Sphinx. It is to the north of the first stone pyramid built in Egypt, known as the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. The site contains about 11 pyramids of kings and queens and the sun temples of the Fifth Dynasty. The Sahure Pyramid, the most famous in Abusir, was excavated by the German Egyptologist Ludwig Burchardt, and it was thought that the Pyramid complex contained about 10,000 square metres of wall reliefs.
I attended all the steps in the discovery of the intact tomb of Iufaa, and it was very exciting to see the opening of the sarcophagus for the first time. Let me take you on a journey through the gates of the underworld to witness the magic and mystery of the secrets of the sands.
The events took place as follows:
Autumn 1996: Discovery of the shaft tomb of Iufaa and the tomb of Udjaorresnet.
(Damage took place in the October 1992 earthquake followed by a series of earthquakes in 1996 damaging the shaft wall)
Autumn 1996-1997: Construction of a dome to protect the burial chamber.
Spring 1998: Official opening of the sarcophagus of Iufaa.
February 17: Preparation for opening of the limestone sarcophagus.
February 23: Opening of the lid of the sarcophagus.
February 24: Cleaning the plaster above the anthropoid sarcophagus.
February 25: Opening the anthropoid sarcophagus at a press conference.
March 1: Moving the mummy to Giza for X-ray examination.
March 6: Returning the mummy to Abusir.
We never know what secrets lie beneath the sands of Egypt, and this was shown when the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the Czech expedition working at Abusir announced the discovery of the first intact tomb to be found in Egypt since that of Tutankhamun.
The tomb belonged to the priest and director of the palace Iufaa. No one had entered the tomb since the burial rites were performed in antiquity, and it was 75 years since any other intact burial of this type had been discovered.
But of course there are significant differences between the two tombs. The tomb of Tutankhamun was full of gold and about 5,000 artefacts. In the tomb of Iufaa, because he was palace controller, we did not expect to find gold. But important and exciting artifacts were discovered that have answered questions regarding ancient Egyptian history and burial rites.
The tomb consisted of a shaft about 28m deep, like nine floors of a building, and inside this shaft was an intact tomb and an enormous white limestone sarcophagus of about 50 tons in weight. This was also intact because there was a plaster seal between the lid and the sarcophagus.
Around the base of this in a narrow aperture between the sarcophagus and the tomb was the complete burial equipment, including a full set of 408 faience ushabtis, four canopic vessels with human-headed lids, wooden furniture, stone vessels of various sizes and a considerable quantity of pottery, much of it consisting of foreign imports acquired during the reign of the king.
The walls of the tomb and the sarcophagus itself were found to be of great interest, and they were covered with hieroglyphs, many of exquisite beauty. These hieroglyphs repeat the spells and invocation prayers of the ancient Pyramid Texts that in the Old Kingdom had been reserved only for the Pyramid-building kings. There were also extracts from later religious texts, including the Book of the Dead that started in the New Kingdom (1550 BCE). These hieroglyphic inscriptions helped the deceased to ascend to the sky and explain the relation of the deceased to the gods.
Major discoveries take time to reveal, as was seen in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The steps of this tomb were found on 22 November 1922, when archaeologist Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon opened a hole to see inside. On 26 November, the official opening took place. On 9 February 1923, Carter started recording and restoring the artefacts inside the tomb.
Director of the Czech expedition at Abusir Miroslav Verner explained to me the story of the discovery of the Iufaa tomb when we were sitting on the top of the Pyramid of Warkare. “Look at the top of the hill located to the south from here. Khaemwas, the son of Ramses II, chose that location. He was able to see south of the Step Pyramid of Djoser and the Pyramids of Dahshur and to the north the Giza Pyramids.”
Verner looked at me and said “you are an archeologist and have become famous through your major archaeological discoveries at Giza. All the discoveries dated to the Old Kingdom and connected with the Pyramids were not seen as important to the public, but this intact tomb is something else.”
The intact tomb found near the tomb of Udjaorresnet was at the bottom of one of four shafts found through the geographical survey of the site.
EXCAVATION: The excavation of a shaft tomb situated to the southeast of the shaft tomb of Udjaorresnet in the southwestern sector of the Abusir Necropolis started in January 1995.
The mouth of a small shaft measuring 1.7m by 1.4m and lined in its upper part by mudbrick was discovered under the limestone plaster lying in front of the large niche in the western outer face of the mudbrick enclosure wall surrounding the main shaft of the tomb.
In January 1996, the Czech expedition started to remove the sand from the shaft six m deep. The expedition was headed by Ladislav Bares, deputy director for Verner, along with three excellent overseers, Mahmoud Talal Al-Kerety, Abdel-Metaal Al-Kerety and Ahmed Al-Kerety.
They are the sons of the famous Al-Kerety, who was a great overseer of workmen. This is a family that maintains the skills to move large stones with the ease of their forefathers. The expedition was also joined by an excellent archaeologist representing the SCA, Attallah Al-Kouli, an inspector of antiquities. This team proved to be the right combination for excavating this site.
Removing the sand from the shaft was exciting. They tied baskets to ropes and sent the baskets 19m down the shaft to the workmen below. They filled the baskets with sand and hauled them back to the surface. To speed up the process, they used a new method, a machine called al-tambura in Arabic and consisting of a rectangular piece of wood.
During the cleaning of the shaft and at about 10m deep in the sand and debris filling the main shaft, a few white limestone fragments with remains of hieroglyphic inscriptions in incised relief were discovered, as well as a number of pottery shards dating back from the early Byzantine period. Among them were numerous fragments of imported Greek and Aegean pieces from the late sixth century CE.
At a depth of about 21m, the ceiling of the burial chamber was unearthed. Oriented east-west and consisting of a tunnel vault built of roughly cut limestone blocks was the burial chamber proper, and adjacent to the western wall of the main shaft an irregular mudbrick wall was discovered standing two metres high along the length of the entire wall.
In the centre of this wall, the eastern entrance to the corridor connecting the main shaft with the small western shaft was opened, protected from above by another mudbrick vault.
At about the level of the lateral walls of the burial chamber, the bottom of the main shaft, measuring about 11x11 metres, was crossed by several thin mudbrick walls built probably with the aim of strengthening the stability of the sand surrounding the burial chamber. These mudbrick walls have been traced to a depth of about 25m.
When the excavators removed the sand from the entrance, which was sealed with limestone blocks, they came across the intact tomb. It was believed that the burial chamber was intact with all of the original burial equipment. They immediately informed us of the discovery.
When I went to the site, the head workman tied me with ropes and sent me down the shaft very slowly for more than 21m until I reached the ground. The burial chamber, about 4.9m long and 3.3m wide, was half filled with a thick layer of sand covering the mudbrick and rough limestone blocks.
To the north of the entrance, there were the remains of a damaged wooden chest adorned with a concave cornice. This contained more than 30 small faience and pottery vases for sacred oils and a medium-sized bronze vessel.
In the area between the sarcophagus and the tomb wall, there was one chest containing two canopic jars. They are called canopic because they were first found in a village near Alexandria called “Canop”.
All four inner sides of the chamber were covered with inscriptions and images in low relief, except for the roughly worked vaulted ceiling and the lower half of the western wall.
The chest of the sarcophagus was completely covered by columns of hieroglyphic inscriptions, being spells to protect the deceased, and seven snakes responsible for protecting him in the afterlife.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly