Important discoveries out of Egypt have again been flooding the global news as archaeologists continue to explore beneath the sands of the Saqqara necropolis near Cairo, which is home to temples, burial grounds, and pyramids of the once-mighty ancient empire. Over the last year, researchers have unearthed at least 210 sarcophagi not touched since their burial two millennia ago, including the coffin of Queen Neit, wife of King Teti. This surge in findings is the most significant in decades and is expected to boost Egypt’s hard-hit tourism industry as post-Covid tourism resumes this year.
The Saqqara burial ground is a UNESCO World Heritage site located about 19 miles southwest of Cairo. The archaeological treasure trove covers an area of under four square miles and includes the step pyramid Djoser, the oldest standing pyramid complex in Egypt. The earliest burials at the site date back to the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt, which began roughly in 3100 BC. Saqqara remained an important complex for more than 3,000 years and was as much a graveyard as it was a pilgrimage site for successive generations who wished to remember, honor, and worship their departed pharaohs.
The latest discovery unveiled the name of a previously unknown queen of the Nile, buried in a tomb next to the previously excavated tomb of King Teti, the first pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Although historians knew it was built for a queen, they only recently found her name carved into a nearby funerary temple wall and written on an obelisk.
In late January 2021, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities revealed the latest discovery of 52 burial shafts with more than 50 sarcophagi estimated to be 3,000 years old – the oldest found at the Saqqara complex thus far. Excavators were earlier surprised to find human remains at the site after already finding a mausoleum of mummified sacred animals, including crocodiles, snakes, scarabs, lion cubs, falcons, and mongooses.
Most of Egypt’s burial sites have been damaged due to centuries of grave-robbing and looting. To find a mound of untouched pieces is rare, let alone a find of this magnitude. The coffins are significant because they confirm that ancient Egyptians were already to burying their dead at Saqqara between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, far earlier than previously thought. Additionally, with the amount of mummies found, scientists can now construct better family trees of Egypt’s ancient elite and get a better sense of their community.
Dr. Zahi Hawass, a leading Egyptologist and a former minister of antiquities, even went as far as to say that recent finds will “rewrite” what we know of ancient Egyptian history. He leads the current excavation.
The wooden and limestone coffins are in excellent condition and covered in brightly colored illustrations of Egyptian gods and quotes from the Book of the Dead, ancient Egypt’s rule book for navigating the afterlife to get to what they considered paradise. While most remain shut since burial, Egyptologists have already opened a few to begin analyzing the remains.
On November 14th, 2020, the team opened a newly discovered sarcophagus at a live event, including an x-ray of the mummy inside. The body was that of a male between five foot four and five foot seven with healthy teeth. He was buried in a cross position, which generally means he was of royal blood. Given the quality of the coffins, most of the bodies found at the site are thought to be high-ranking authorities.
Along with the new queen, the team dug up many wooden funeral masks, gilded statues and a shrine dedicated to the god Anubis, who was considered the caretaker of the dead. Another major find is the remains of a 13-foot-long papyrus detailing the seventeenth chapter of the Book of the Dead in hieroglyphics. Games meant to keep the dead busy in the afterlife were also found next to the deceased, including a game called ‘Twenty’ and another game called ‘Senet.’. The latter is a game of strategy similar to modern-day chess that allows the soul to follow safely to the afterlife if won.
Egypt expects these new items will boost tourism when the world climbs out of lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Much of the current finds will be on display at the new and soon-to-be-opened Grand Egyptian Museum. The USD 1-billion cultural mega-museum overlooks the Pyramids of Giza and is set to finally open later this year after some setbacks due to the pandemic. In 2019, Egypt’s tourist industry brought in a record USD 13 billion and had been expected to exceed those figures in 2020.
Remarking on the impact of this find in the context of his decades-long career in Egyptology and archaeology, Hawass shared his marvel at the colossal new finds at Saqqara: “That moment, I cannot explain it to you. It is passion when you discover a mummy for the first time that was sealed for thousands of years. I always say that you never know what the sand of Egypt may hide.”
Excavations at Saqqara are ongoing, and and the site is expected to continue to yield wonders for years to come.