3,000-Year-Old Tombs Unveiled in Egypt
By ANNA JOHNSON
SAQQARA, Egypt – Archaeologists unveiled the tombs Tuesday of a pharaonic butler and a scribe that have been buried for more than 3,000 years – proof, they say, that Egypt’s sands still have secrets to reveal.
Although archaeologists have been exploring Egypt intensively for more than 150 years, some estimate only one-third of what lies underground in Saqqara, site of the country’s most ancient pyramid and burial site of kings, has been uncovered.
“The sands of Saqqara reveal lots of secrets,” said Egypt’s antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, as he showed reporters a 4,000-year-old mud brick tomb that belonged to a scribe of divine records, Ka-Hay, and his wife.
The tomb, along with the butler’s 3,350-year-old limestone grave and two painted coffins, were discovered earlier this year near the famous Step Pyramid of King Djoser – the oldest of Egypt’s more than 90 pyramids.
Hawass said the three discoveries are just the tip of what remains undiscovered at Saqqara, which was the burial grounds for Memphis, the capital of Egypt’s Old Kingdom.
In December, archaeologists in Saqqara discovered the mummified remains of a doctor who was buried along with surgical tools more than 4,000 years ago. Two months earlier, the graves of three royal dentists were discovered in Saqqara after the arrest of tomb raiders led archaeologists to the site.
Hawass said the mud brick tomb unveiled Tuesday, which also featured wooden statues and a door with intricate hieroglyphic carvings, “could enrich our knowledge about the people who actually surrounded the kings of Saqqara.”
“It doesn’t look great because it was built from mud brick and not built of limestone, but I really believe that this tomb is very important,” said Hawass, who donned his signature Indiana Jones-style hat.
Three wooden statues also were found in the tomb. Two of them, each about 3 feet tall and depicting the scribe, were laid out on pieces of foam on the ground. One was missing a left arm. The third was not shown because it was in poor condition.
After Hawass presented the tomb, workers picked up the ancient statues, placed them in the back of a pickup truck – while tourists, surprised at the media commotion, quickly snapped photographs – and drove them to another building in the complex.
On the other side of the Step Pyramid, archaeologists then unveiled the second tomb, which belonged to a butler who died some 3,350 years ago.
Carved out of limestone, it contained murals that showed scenes of people performing rituals and monkeys eating fruit. The blue and orange colors of the paint were surprisingly well preserved.
“This is a very, very lively scene,” said Maarten Raven, the excavation’s director and a curator at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Netherlands.
Raven said he believed other tombs from the New Kingdom, similar to the butler’s, had yet to be uncovered in Saqqara, which is famous for Old Kingdom antiquities. Many of the New Kingdom tombs, which date from 1570 B.C. to 1070 B.C., can be found in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor.
“We hope one day this area will be open to visitors so people can see that Saqqara is not only Old Kingdom but New Kingdom as well,” Raven said.
Hawass also unveiled two wooden coffins, 4,000 years old, that were found south of the Step Pyramid. The rectangular coffins, painted light orange with blue hieroglyphics, held human-shaped coffins known as anthropoids, containing the mummies of a priest and a woman, who Hawass said was identified in the hieroglyphics as the priest’s “girlfriend.”
Saqqara, a popular tourist site in the desert about 12 miles south of Cairo, hosts a collection of temples, tombs and funerary complexes. Its Step Pyramid is the forerunner of the more sophisticated pyramids in Giza, which are believed to have been built about a century later.