Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 December 2006
Issue No. 823
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Too big for a coffin

photo: Ronald Dunlap
photo: Ronald Dunlap

ARCHAEOLOGISTS are sizing up a splendid painted anthropoid wooden sarcophagus found by chance at the Saqqara necropolis last week..

The sarcophagus was found by an Egyptian archaeological mission engaged in cleaning the burial shaft of the sixth- dynasty royal physician Qar, which neighbours King Djoser's pyramid complex at Saqqara almost 35km south of the Giza Plateau.

The team, which is led by Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), was taken by surprise when they stumbled upon the beautifully-painted anthropoid coffin. The covering featured a bearded man with a reddish brown face and large, open eyes lined with black kohl, thick eyebrows and red lips. His garment is painted dark blue and embellished by a collar with three rows of blue, green and yellow cylindrical beads and a pendant adorned with a figure of Maat, the goddess of justice, stretching her wings in a way that enables her to hold both sides of the lid. The lower part of the lid is decorated with a vibrantly-coloured painting of the mummified form of the four sons of Horus standing in two rows facing each other while offering linen wrappings to the deceased. Beneath is another scene of two grief-stricken women mourning the dead man. Prayers to the god of the afterlife, Osiris, are also written on the lid.

When the team opened the sarcophagus they found the well- preserved mummy of an unidentified man. Coming face to face with the mummy for the first time, even Hawass was impressed. "This is one of the most beautiful Late Period mummies ever found," he said. The mummy, which is very well preserved, is of a man wearing a gilded funerary mask showing the idealised facial features of the deceased, although part of the nose and mouth have partly deteriorated. The paintings on the mummy are divided into several registers: the uppermost shows a broad collar with several rows of coloured beads and then the goddess Maat stretching her wings; beneath it are consecutive shapes of the "Tit belt" symbolising the goddess Isis and the "Jed" column symbolising Osiris. The second row shows the sun god Khepri with the sun disk and the god Anubis mummifying the body of the deceased, which lies on a lion-shaped bed. Underneath this are the four canopic jars with "sons of Horus" lids. On the ends are two registers containing rows of minor deities. The underneath part of the mummy is decorated with geometric patterns, while the feet are carefully painted on the cartonnage.

Early studies of the mummy revealed that it had been wrapped in a large number of linen shreds, and that it could be dated to the 30th Dynasty. However, a fracture found on the right side of the sarcophagus proves that it did not belong to the mummy it contained, since it was too short for the body. This raised the possibility that the priests in antiquity had to act in a hurry to insert the mummy inside the short sarcophagus to protect it. They had also removed it from its original location, but it turned out that they found a safe place to rebury it.

The mummy and the sarcophagus are now at the Saqqara restoration laboratory. More research will be carried out on the paintings and hieroglyphic texts in order to identify the owner and the reason why it was inserted into this sarcophagus and placed in Qar's tomb.

As with any other tomb in the Saqqara necropolis, Qar's tomb was re-used during the Late Period. The expedition unearthed 22 bronze statues of different deities in various shapes and sizes. Some of the most interesting feature the god Ptah, Horus-the- child (also known as Harpocrates) and Isis. A statuette of the great engineer Imhotep, builder of Djoser's pyramid complex, was also among the statuettes found by the team.

The tomb of Qar is a small mastaba tomb with a chapel and a small limestone false door. It was found in the year 2000 by the same mission under the leadership of Hawass, when the team uncovered the tomb's burial shaft. Digging further, they discovered the limestone sarcophagus of Qar with its mummy intact, along with a number of funerary objects such as pottery stamped with the name of Qar in red, a rounded offering plate embellished with a list of offerings, and a number of copper medical instruments that once were used by Qar to treat his patients and perform surgery.

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