Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 April 2008
Issue No. 893
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Some drowned, some buried

Artefacts immersed in the Nile at Aswan and a 19th-Dynasty funerary collection in Luxor are the most recent discoveries in Egypt, as Nevine El-Aref reports

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Quartzite ushabti figure (above); some of the artefacts that were for long on the Nile bed

It is surely in the quiet and relaxing city of Aswan that the Nile is at its most beautiful. The river flows through an amber desert, past granite rocks and round emerald islands smothered in palm groves and tropical plants. This peaceful scene, however, was disturbed last week by archaeologists shouting and yelling at one another from their moored yacht while they carried out the delicate task of hoisting a decorative object from the bed of the river where it had lain for more than 2,500 years.

It was one of several newly-found artefacts that sank beneath the ripples of the shifting Nile off the shore beside the Old Cataract Hotel, across the river from the legendary Elephantine Island where relics remain of stone temples dating from various eras in the history of ancient Egypt, along with the Roman Nilometre.

"Look what our young Egyptian archaeologist- divers have found on the Nile bed," Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The Nile is revealing its secrets. The four-month-long underwater survey is finally yielding its fruits."

Forty metres beneath the surface the divers discovered a complete portico of the temple of Khnum; two huge, unidentified columns; and four pollards from the Coptic era. Hawass said these pieces would remain on the river bed as they were too heavy to be lifted out the water. Early studies show that the pollards may be part of a Christian church that may have once been located in the area but for unknown reasons was demolished or destroyed. Several 26th-Dynasty decorative pieces, along with Roman amphora and a collection of clay vessels, have been also found and removed from the Nile bed so they can be restored and placed on display.

Hawass said the idea of searching for monuments at the Nile bed came to him some years ago when he noticed the importance of the Nile and how it was the life vein for the ancient Egyptians, especially during the pyramid-building era when huge blocks and statues were transported to the construction sites.

Aswan, city of granite and home to four large granite quarries, was the hub of sculptures and sculpting through the long span of Egypt's history. During the Old Kingdom, the ancient Egyptians cut blocks for the Giza Pyramids. In the New Kingdom, obelisks, chapels and statues were transported down the Nile to be installed in temples in Luxor, especially the Karnak and Luxor temples.

"Ancient Egyptians are like all human beings: they can be accurate or imprecise," Hawass commented. "Therefore we can expect that when these items were transported along the Nile they suffered accidents, which may have meant they sank and disappeared under the water to lie on the river bed. Now it is our turn to explore the area and unearth Egypt's sunken treasure, not only in the Mediterranean but in the Nile as well."

Hawass relates that during the last century several accidents took place that led to the loss of certain objects, such as the two small obelisks found by the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette in Dar Abul- Naga on Luxor's West Bank, which fell into the water while being carried over to the east bank. The obelisks were known to have fallen only 10 metres from Karnak Temple. During the upcoming archaeological season, which will start in early September, Egyptian archaeologist-divers will start surveying the part of the Nile that lies between Aswan and Luxor, which of course holds a number of obelisks and life size statues.

Another important discovery has been made at the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Luxor. Egyptian excavators cleaning the corridor of Pharaoh Seti I's tomb unearthed a quartzite ushabti (human representation) figure and the cartouche of Pharaoh Seti I, the second ruler of the 19th Dynasty (1314-1304 BC).

Hawass said the team that made the discovery was the first Egyptian mission ever to work in the Valley of the Kings, where excavations were monopolised by foreigners for two centuries. He further stated that a number of clay vessels were also unearthed, along with fragments of the tomb's wall paintings that may have become dislodged and fallen off after its discovery.

During the process to clean the corridor the length of the corridor was measured and found to be 136 metres, not the 100 metres recorded in the original report of the tomb's discoverer, Giovanni Battista Belzoni.

Tarek El-Awadi, deputy field director of the mission, told the Weekly that geological studies revealed the corridor was not carved inside the tomb as one single piece but was formed of separate parts, each with its own architectural features as if it were a gate leading towards the afterlife. El-Awadi added that tools used by the famous 19th-century tomb robber Abdel-Rassul and his family were found in the dust. Among these were a tea caddy, cigarette packets and a manasha (a cane with a horse's tail for flies). "These objects have been collected and cleaned so they can be put on display at Beit Al-Gourna in Gourna," El-Awadi said.

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