for National Geographic News
Four ancient tombs containing well-preserved mummies and ornate painted coffins have been unearthed in El Faiyum, an oasis about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Cairo (see map). (See photos of the tomb treasures.)
One female mummy was found wearing a gilded mask, a rare treasure at the site known as the necropolis of Deir el-Banat. The burial complex is a frequent target for modern-day grave robbers and was thought to have been looted of its riches.
"An important point is that these mummies are almost untouched," said Galina A. Belova, a Russian Egyptologist who led the excavation.
"There are not so many [well preserved] mummies in El Faiyum at the moment. They are very rare."
In a separate tomb, the excavators discovered the first completely intact mummy ever found at the necropolis.
The team of U.S. and Russian archaeologists stumbled upon the burials during routine work in a section of the cemetery, which was used from the early fourth century B.C. to the seventh century A.D.
Some 150 other tombs from various periods and dozens of poorly preserved mummies were also unearthed, though most of the graves had been plundered during a rash of robberies in the 20th century.
Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said some of the newly discovered remains are the best yet found from the Ptolemaic era—the span of Greek rule that began shortly after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.
"One mummy was beautifully gilded, and another is in very good condition," said Hawass, who is also a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. "They show some of the best examples of mummies from this period." (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Archaeologists also found a strange burial on the outskirts of the site containing the nonmummified remains of a child and a group of mummified dogs, a grave unlike any other yet found in Egypt.
Coffins, Mummies, and Masks
The four best preserved and largest of the newfound tombs contained human-shaped coffins that were mostly intact.
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