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Rare Middle-Class Tomb Found From Ancient Egypt

Steven Stanek in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
January 18, 2008
 
Archaeologists have unsealed the intact burial chamber of an ancient Egyptian official, providing a rare glimpse into the burial customs of the Old Kingdom's middle class.

The relatively modest tomb, belonging to a fifth dynasty priest and politician named Neferinpu, was discovered in 2006 at Abusir, the ancient necropolis of the fifth and 26th dynasties, located near modern-day Cairo.

Only recently, however, did a Czech team open the tomb's burial chamber, a tiny room about 33 feet (10 meters) below ground packed with offerings and personal effects that had remained undisturbed for nearly 4,500 years.

"The most important conclusion to be connected with this discovery—which is, in principle, a major discovery—is that everything we saw was found intact, which means nobody has seen or touched this burial since the Old Kingdom," said Miroslav Barta, the Czech archaeologist who led the excavation.

It is rare to unearth intact burials of upper-middle class officials such as Neferinpu—a tier below extravagant royal burials but more elaborate than those of the lower classes—he added.

(Related: "'Gentrified' Egyptian Burial Chamber Discovered" [August 2, 2007].)

"[There was] no gold and no silver, but the wealth of information makes this chamber quite unique within the context," said Barta, who added that last year his team found four much poorer burials in Abusir, which contained little more than the bones of the deceased.

"In ancient Egyptian archaeology today, it's not about discoveries, it's not about beautiful things, but it's about information."

Buried Mummy

The team found Neferinpu's burial chamber behind a mud-brick wall to the east of an ancient burial shaft.

"It became clear within several hours that we had an unrobbed burial chamber in front of us," said Barta, who added that the thrill of opening the burial chamber was tempered by his attention to detail.

"You are excited; you feel like Indiana Jones for a couple of seconds," he said.

"But these very short seconds vanish quickly, and then it's just the responsibility of doing the best thing for the tomb itself and for the guy who was buried there, out of respect."

Inside the 6.5-foot (2-meter) by 13-foot (4-meter) space, the team found dozens of ceremonial artifacts, including 10 sealed beer jars, more than 80 miniature limestone vessels, a small perfume jug, and plates and cups for symbolic offerings of food and drink.

Also present were four flat-bottomed vessels known as "canopies," which were used to store internal organs removed during the mummification process.

Beneath the lid of the sarcophagus, the mummy, which was wrapped long before preservation methods were perfected, was badly decomposed.

The body was inlaid with hundreds of Faience beads, and the official's walking stick, about 6.5 feet (2 meters) long and decorated at the tip with small pieces of gold, was buried at his side.

The sarcophagus also contained a wooden scepter, which Neferinpu would have held in his left hand as sign of his seniority, according to Tarek El-Awadi, an official with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and chief inspector at Abusir.

A Rare Find

According to inscriptions discovered on a false door to the tomb, Neferinpu served in the administrations of two fifth dynasty rulers, Neferirkara (2475 to 2455 B.C.) and Nyuserra (2445 to 2421 B.C.).

He held dual posts—religious priest and administrative aid, perhaps responsible for several building projects—as was customary for officials of the era, according to Barta.

Despite the seeming importance of the occupations, such officials were not part of ancient society's elite class, and their burials were usually humble.

"He was rich, but he wasn't the uppermost kind of rich. He wasn't like a top priest," said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

"It gives you nice insight into the strata of Egyptian society," she said. "It gives you a sense of the people who are not a part of uppermost echelons ... and what was considered customary, proper, or appropriate for someone of that rank."

According to excavation leader Barta, the burial falls in line with what is known about fifth dynasty officials, who were more loyal to the throne than their sixth dynasty successors.

"In the sixth dynasty ... the chambers tend to be richer and richer because of the decline of the central administration and the rising independence of officials," Barta said.

"This guy, on the other hand, was quite a loyal fifth dynasty official, whose career, tomb architecture, tomb size, and tomb equipment were determined by a single person, the king," he added.

Spared by Luck

Neferinpu's burial chamber likely survived intact both because of its modest construction and its fortuitous placement, Barta pointed out.

An opposing chamber at the bottom of the excavation site's principal burial shaft, to the west, had been robbed in antiquity, he said. (Related: "Egyptian Dentists' Tombs Found by Thieves" [October 23, 2006].)

"Normally tomb robbers looked for chambers to the west of the shafts," he said. "In this particular case, the other tomb was penetrated from a different shaft which could not hit our eastern burial chamber, which thus escaped unnoticed."

El-Awadi, of the SCA, said the robbed tomb may also have been a better target for thieves hunting for buried fortune.

"The other tomb and sarcophagus was in a very good state. It was better manufactured, better sculpted, and [richer]," he said.

"[Neferinpu's] burial chamber, on the other hand, was very roughly finished, it was not polished, it was very poor—they knew they wouldn't find anything there."

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