Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 February 2009
Issue No. 935
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mummies found hidden in Saqqara

Intact wooden and limestone sarcophagi housing dozens of mummies have been discovered inside the Sixth-Dynasty tomb of Sennedjem in the Saqqara necropolis, reports Nevine El-Aref

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: the anthropoid limestone sarcophagus; Hawass entering the burial shaft; workers cleaning the shaft; an Egyptologist brushing the sand off one of the newly discovered skeletons; Hawass and Karar removing the lid of the wooden sarcophagus

On Wednesday of last week, the Gisr Al-Mudir area located at the south-western corner of King Djoser's Step Pyramid complex in the Saqqara necropolis was brimming with archaeologists, workmen and media representatives as Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Secretary-General Zahi Hawass and his team prepared to give members of the public, the first glimpse of the latest discovery of ancient Egyptian treasure to be found in Saqqara.

Two weeks ago, during a routine excavation work at the mastaba of the Sixth-Dynasty lector-priest Sennedjem, archaeologists from the SCA stumbled upon what is believed to be a cache of mummies of the 26th Dynasty, Egypt's last independent Kingdom before it was overrun by a succession of foreign conquerors.

The mummies, most of which had deteriorated to little more than skeletons, were found inside an 11- metre deep burial shaft excavated inside the Sennedjem mastaba. Although the mastaba dates from a much earlier period, the shaft is intrusive, having been dug during the 26th Dynasty -- almost 2,000 years later. Two sarcophagi of fine white limestone and four wooden coffins were found on the floor of the shaft. The remainder of the mummies was placed in five niches within its walls and on shelves along its western wall. One of the newly-discovered, 2,600- year-old wooden coffins was still sealed, untouched since the days of the Pharaohs. On opening the coffin the team uncovered a body mummified in the style typical of the period, covered with linen and resin. Hawass believes that there are probably funerary amulets hidden among the wrappings. From the finely carved inscription on the coffin, Hawass was able to determine that the mummy belonged to a man named Padi-Heri, the son of Djehuty-Sesh-Nub and the grandson of Iru-Ru.

A limestone sarcophagus also remained sealed with mortar until last Wednesday when Hawass and his team opened it up before the public. Inside the dark burial shaft in the Sennedjem mastaba, illuminated only with torches and camera lights, workmen with their crowbars and picks succeeded in lifting the heavy lid off the sarcophagus to reveal a perfectly preserved, unidentified mummy wrapped in dark- stained canvas.

"At a moment like this, seeing something for the first time, that holds all the passion of archaeology," Hawass said as he admired the mummy. He added that although the mummy had not yet been identified but it seemed that the deceased was a wealthy person, as only the rich could afford to have a limestone sarcophagus which had to be brought from Thebes.

"It is a very important discovery as it shows much of the sprawling site at the Saqqara necropolis, home of the world's oldest standing step pyramid and the mastabas of the Memphis rulers, has yet to be unearthed. It is a storeroom for mummies," Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly. "I am overwhelmed with mummies," he added, pointing to the shaft that houses eight wooden and limestone sarcophagi as well as at least two dozen mummies.

The mummy of a dog was also found opposite to mummies of children, prompting speculation that the burial shaft held the remains of a large family, including the family pet, with the richer and more prominent members buried in the sarcophagi.

"The owner of the dog could have asked that his faithful companion be mummified and accompany him into the afterlife," Hawass suggested.

Abdel-Hakim Karar, chief archaeologist of Saqqara, said the find reflected the fact that the area was used for burials in both the Old Kingdom and 2,000 years later when these mummies were buried.

Karar told the Weekly that Hawass planned to scan the mummy, a complicated process that requires the mummy to be removed from the tomb. He believes there could be gold amulets inside meant to "help the deceased in the afterlife", a common practice in Pharaonic times.

Hawass opened another sarcophagus in the storeroom, a wooden coffin with an inscription in hieroglyphics on the lid that exposed another mummy, but stopped short of opening a fourth, also a wooden coffin, because of its poor condition. All eight sarcophagi in the storeroom are believed to hold mummies, said Karar, but so far only three were opened.

Last November, a 4,300-year-old pyramid in Saqqara -- the 118th in Egypt, and the 12th to be found at this site -- was uncovered, and in December, two new tombs were discovered near the current mummies' discovery.

According to Hawass, only 30 per cent of Egypt's monuments have been uncovered, with the rest still under the sand.

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