The thrill of a mummy chase

Zahi Hawass, Wednesday 22 Dec 2010

Mummies are shrouded in magic and mystery. I was interested in working around the Giza Pyramids for most of my life, but a 1996 excavation got me hooked on a new exciting challenge: chasing mummies

Zahi Hawwas

People around me thought I had the best job title, Director of the Giza Pyramids. Some even called me ‘Mr Pyramid!’ But, in 1996 I had to temporarily leave my pyramids behind and go to Bahariya Oasis, to excavate a unique site that turned out to be the Valley of the Golden Mummies.

When I first walked around this site, I estimated that it could contain as many as 10,000 mummies covered in gold. It was the most amazing discovery of my career. However, eventually I only excavated 250 mummies, terminating the excavation so as to leave the others for future generations of Egyptologists who will likely have new techniques and technologies.

The faces and chests of the mummies I discovered were covered in gold. Ashuruballit, the king of Mitanni, once wrote a demanding letter to the Egyptian king, Akhenaten, saying, “Gold in your land is like the dust…send me much gold!” The people buried in this cemetery were wine merchants, so they, like kings, could also afford to cover their mummies in this precious material.

After the excavation at the Valley, my name became inextricably linked to mummies, and it still remains the case today. The National Geographic children’s magazine, National Geographic Kids, called me the ‘mummy hunter,’ and this summer, the History Channel aired a series of ten one-hour long programs with me in it, called Chasing Mummies. The show was watched by about 50 million American viewers.

And though my excavations at Bahariya Oasis came to an end, the search for mummies is hardly a thing of the past, as amazing findings continue to astonish us.

Recently, we caught a thief digging at night, just west of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, at Saqqara. The area is known as Gisr el-Mudir, the ‘bridge of the director,’ after an expedition director who used to pitch his tent there. Under my direction, the Supreme Council of Antiquities began to excavate in the area. There we found a tomb belonging to a 6th Dynasty (c. 2323-2150 BC) priest, called Shendwa. Inside the tomb were a small limestone obelisk and a collection of limestone vessels, some carved in the shape of ducks and which still contained the remains of real ducks.

The tomb’s burial shaft, we discovered, runs to a depth of 20m, underground. The task of entering inside it was another one of my great, unforgettable Egyptological adventures. The workmen clearing the tomb prepared a basket for me, attached to a long rope.  The men winched me down the shaft, in what was one of the most scary and dangerous archaeological experiences of my life – a true Indiana Jones moment! Next to Shendwa’s tomb is that of his son, Khonsu, who inherited his father’s titles. Khonsu had had a beautiful, brightly painted tomb made for himself, as well.

Nearby is another 6th Dynasty tomb belonging to a man by the name of Sennedjem. In the 26th Dynasty (688-525 BC), a shaft was dug from his chapel into the same burial chamber. When I was lowered down into this one – this time only 11m deep – I found myself in front of 30 mummies. It felt as though I was dancing with them! The remains were placed inside five niches and one of them contained four bodies lined up neatly in a row with a mummified dog placed near their heads. It was as if the owner of the dog had wanted it to be buried beside them.

Last February, I opened two of the coffins. One was an impressive limestone sarcophagus. Its lid was broken, probably when it was lowered into the burial chamber, but was repaired in ancient times. The other was a wooden coffin inscribed with magical texts to help the deceased person inside go safely into the Afterlife. It was very exciting, especially when we realized that they contained intact bodies! Both were typical 26th Dynasty mummies, wrapped in linen, and covered in resin and protective amulets.

Dancing with mummies was fun, but chasing them is even better!

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