For National Geographic News
An underground maze found packed with mummies was most likely an ancient multifamily cemetery, Egypt's top archaeologist said.
A French team made the recent discovery of hundreds of mummies crammed into deep shafts and corridors at Saqqara, 15 miles (25 kilometers) south of Cairo.
Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said the burial site was used for many centuries, from the 26th dynasty (664-525 B.C.) through the end of the Ptolemaic period in 30 B.C.
"Each family dug a shaft about 30 feet [9 meters deep] and buried all the members of the family there. Each shaft may represent a family of this period," he said.
Some of the mummies were wrapped in linen and encased in sealed coffins and stone sarcophagi. At least one of the coffins was covered with gold, said Hawass, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.
The team, led by Christiane Ziegler, made the find when looking for an Old Kingdom (2575-2150 B.C.) tomb first found by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette in the mid-1800s. Blocks from the tomb are on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, but the tomb itself has been lost.
Saqqara is one of Egypt's richest archaeological sites. As the cemetery for the ancient capital city of Memphis, Saqqara's burials span 3,000 years and 31 dynasties.
"Saqqara may be the only site in Egypt where, if you dig anywhere, you will find something," Hawass said. "It was used from the very beginning of Egyptian history until the very end."
Finding Lost Treasures
During his tenure as head of the SCA, Hawass has placed special emphasis on recovering lost and stolen artifacts. In the past two years about 500 artifacts have been returned to Egypt.
"Antiquities dealing is becoming a big business," he said. "We hope that the world will cooperate with us to stop this smuggling. These monuments do not belong to us only, but to the whole world."
Hawass's detectives have also found treasures previously unknown to them.
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