Cleopatra Bust Among Treasures Found in Egypt Temple

Mati Milstein
for National Geographic News
May 30, 2008
An alabaster bust of Cleopatra and a mask that might have belonged to her lover Marc Antony are part of a slew of treasures found north of Alexandria, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities announced on Monday.

The artifacts were discovered inside the Taposiris Magna, a large temple in what is now Abusir that was built during the reign of Ptolemy II, which lasted from 282 to 246 B.C.

Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the antiquities council, had been at the site leading a team searching for the lost tombs of Antony and Cleopatra.

According to legend, the famous couple committed suicide when Antony was defeated in 31 B.C. during a short series of land and sea battles that cemented Octavian's rule over Rome.

Hawass, who is also a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, said that in addition to the bust and mask, the team found 22 coins stamped with Cleopatra's face and a bronze statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.

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While searching the site's network of underground shafts and tunnels, Hawass also stumbled across skeletons that he said were likely the remains of early Christians hiding from Roman authorities.

Though adamant that the most recent discoveries mean they are no closer to finding the tombs, the researchers think Taposiris is "a perfect place for us to look for Cleopatra and Marc Antony," Hawass said.

"It's just a theory—we are not 100 percent—that this was a typical place to hide the tombs away from Octavian."

Bigger Than Tut?

Cleopatra was the last ruler during Egypt's Greco-Roman Period, in which a Greek royal family governed from 323 to 30 B.C. She was arguably one of the most powerful and influential women in the ancient world.

In 48 B.C. she seduced Roman emperor Julius Caesar and bore him a son.

Years later she had three children with Marc Antony, then a key Roman political and military leader.

Their ill-fated love affair has been the subject of countless artworks, including paintings, movies, an opera, and a Shakespeare play.

One theory is that Taposiris Magna may have been chosen as the couple's burial site because of its temples to the Egyptian god Osiris and his wife, Isis.

"We hope Cleopatra's tomb is located in this site," Hawass said. "This could be an important discovery—bigger than that of King Tutankhamun's tomb."

(Related: Get the facts about the curse of King Tut's tomb.)

John Baines is an Egyptologist at Oxford University's Oriental Institute who was not involved in the excavation.

"Aphrodite is not associated with indigenous Egyptian temples, so her presence may suggest a non-Egyptian, perhaps Ptolemaic connection," Baines said.

And masks similar to the one Hawass thinks might have belonged to Marc Antony were "normally part of a burial and are relatively common objects from Greco-Roman Egypt," he added.

Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University, said she is very doubtful that the site will contain the tomb of Cleopatra.

"I would have thought it very unlikely that Marc Antony was buried with her. Of course, if the title 'Tomb of Cleopatra' was pinned on [this site], it would be a huge tourist attraction," she said.

"I am not, needless to say, impugning the archaeological credentials of Mr. Hawass, but it's hard not to think that such factors play some part in the enthusiasm surrounding this discovery."

Hawass has been digging at Taposiris Magna for the past two years and has explored about 95 percent of the site.

Excavations are now on hold and will resume in November, when the team plans to use radar to further map buried features.

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