Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 April - 5 May 2010
Issue No. 996
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In the sands of time

Graeco-Roman tombs, an intact coffin, Ptolemaic coins and whale bones are just some the recent discoveries made by Egyptians working in Lower Egypt, Nevine El-Aref reports

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Tthe archaeological site at Bahariya Oasis; wall painting relief inside Ken-Amun's tomb in Ismailia; the female mummy unearthed at Bahariya Oasis

This month has proved very fruitful for the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). Three of its excavation missions, in Isamilia, Bahariya Oasis and Fayoum have all uncovered distinguished Roman treasures that reveal more about the fabric of this significant era in Egyptian history.

An SCA archaeological team working in the area of Tel Al-Maskhouta in Ismailia found the 19th-Dynasty mud-brick tomb of the overseer of royal records, Ken-Amun. Nearby they found 35 Roman tombs and an ancient limestone stela dating from the reign of an unidentified 19th-Dynasty Pharaoh.

"It is a very important discovery for ancient Egyptian history," Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, told Al-Ahram Weekly. The tomb consists of a rectangular room with a domed stone ceiling and a deep squared shaft. The walls are decorated with scenes depicting the tomb owner in various positions with his family and before the gods, as well as the titles of the deceased and the name of his wife, Isis, who was, it is written, a singer to the god Atum. Some of the decorations are in sunken relief and show religious and funerary scenes. The most interesting are the ones that display mourning women and the lines of Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead that concerns the questioning of the deceased. A depiction of the goddess Hathor in the shape of a cow emerging from the Nile Delta marshes, and the four sons of the god Horus, are also visible. Inside the shaft the team found a large limestone sarcophagus of the tomb owner engraved with inscriptions on its inner and outer surfaces.

"This is a very important discovery for ancient Egyptian history," Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He said that it was the first time a Remissive tomb of this type had been discovered in Lower Egypt. Hawass pointed out that the tomb was very well preserved and beautifully decorated, and was inscribed with typical scenes of the Ramesside period.

Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, supervisor of the SCA's central administration of Lower Egypt, said the discovery of the tomb would provide more information about the history of the Delta and its geography, as well as the position of Tel Al-Maskhouta in regard to the eastern border of Egypt. Its deep location (four metres below the ground level), Abdel-Maqsoud said, suggested that it may have been part of a larger ancient Egyptian cemetery located between the lake at Ismailia and the railway line that now runs between Ismailia and Cairo and Ismailia and Zagazig.

Abdel-Maqsoud told the Weekly that because of the importance of the discovery the sum of LE30,000 had been allocated for the continuance of the excavation as well as for archaeological documentation and restoration. He said the 35 Roman tombs that were found on an upper archaeological level in the same area, as had a limestone stela on which was written in hieroglyphs the names of the Hyksos capital Avaris (Het-Weret) and of the god Set before an unidentified Pharaoh.

Tel-Al Maskhouta, previously known as Bitoum, is in the Tamiliya valley on the eastern branch of the Nile. It was here that the largest section of the Suez Canal was created. In the ancient Egyptian era it was a garrison town, and its ancient name lingered into the Islamic era when it was known as Beit Atum, or "the house of Atum", later shortened to Bitoum. It was developed during the Ramesside period when it became a large military granary to store foodstuffs to feed the army on the road to the eastern border of Egypt. During the digging of the Suez Canal a large number of statues and painted limestone reliefs were unearthed, as well as sphinxes bearing the features of Pharaoh Ramses II.

In Bahariya Oasis a second team from the SCA discovered a rock-hewn tombs dating from the third century BC in the Greek period. The tombs are within a cemetery in the Ain Zawya area of Bawiti, the main town of the oasis. These tombs have a unique interior design consisting of a long stairway leading to a corridor, which ends in a hall containing mastabas (benches) at its corners that were used in burial of the deceased.

Inside the tombs excavators uncovered four anthropoid plaster masks and a gold fragment decorated with a scene of the four sons of Horus, as well as a number of coins, clay and glass vessels of various shapes and sizes.

Sabri Abdel-Aziz, head of the ancient Egyptian antiquities department, said the tombs were found as a result of excavation work in an area allocated for the construction of a youth centre in the village of Ah-Hara, 25km from Bawiti. Abdel-Aziz added that the team had also uncovered an anthropoid coffin which still contained the mummy. The coffin was overlaid with pained plaster featuring the deceased, a woman, in Roman costume and wearing some of her jewellery.

For his part Mahmoud Afifi, director of Cairo and Giza antiquities, told the Weekly that this discovery was early evidence of the existence of a large necropolis in the area dating from the Graeco-Roman period. He said the SCA had halted the construction of the youth centre and had taken all the required legal steps to place the area under SCA control.

It was in Bahariya Oasis that, in 1996, Egyptian archaeologists led by Zahi Hawass discovered the Valley of the Golden Mummies, where they excavated 17 tombs containing a total of 254 mummies.

At the northern end of Lake Qaroun in Fayoum, the closest oasis to Cairo and the Nile valley, a third mission of the SCA unearthed 383 very well- preserved bronze coins from the reign of Ptolemy III (222-246 BC). Each of the coins weighs 32 grammes and is decorated on one side with a scene depicting the cross-cultural god Amun-Zeus wearing a distinguishing wig with two horns and a cobra. The other side bears a stamp of a falcon standing on a wooden stand, under which the name of Ptolemy II is written in Greek.

Abdel-Aziz said the mission was working on an area stretching on seven kilometres long and one wide after making a request to the Egyptian Tourism development department. Now all the antiquities found will be relocated to another area.

Archaeologists have also uncovered antiquities that can be dated to several historical eras from the prehistoric right through to the Ottoman period. The mission found three prehistoric necklaces made of ostrich egg. From the Ottoman period, the mission uncovered a kohl container and two rings.

Khaled Saad, director of the prehistoric department at the SCA, said the necklaces were unique in that this was the first time such a technique for making necklaces from the prehistoric era. He said that a skeleton of a proto-whale that lived 42 million years ago had has also been found. These prehistoric items will be put on display at a museum to be constructed at the site.

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