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Ancient Cult Chapels, Egyptian Noblewoman's Tomb Found

Andrew Bossone in Cairo
for National Geographic News
March 6, 2009
 
A 3,000-year-old noblewoman's tomb complex has been uncovered in Egypt, archaeologists announced Tuesday.

The tomb has been identified as belonging to a woman named Isisnofret—possibly the granddaughter of Pharaoh Ramses II, who reigned during the 13th century B.C.

Hieroglyphics on a sarcophagus in the tomb identify Isisnofret as a spst, or noblewoman—an honorific reserved for women of the royal family or of otherwise exceptional status.

Long hidden by sand and rubble on a rocky outcrop on the outskirts the ancient royal burial city of Saqqara, the complex measures 89 by 34 feet (27 by 10 meters).

The tomb complex includes the base of a pyramid, a monumental gateway, a colonnaded courtyard, and an antechamber with three cult chapels, according to the team from Japan's Waseda University that has been excavating the site since 1991.

Dining With the Dead

Common in New Kingdom (1539 to 1075 B.C.) tomb complexes, cult chapels frequently hosted the deceased's family on feast days. Relatives would often eat and make offerings of food and other items to be used by the dead, according to Ray Johnson, director of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute's Epigraphic Survey, who was not involved in the project.

Though Isisnofret's chapels are in ruins, partly due to looting, archaeologists have found fragments decorated with hieroglyphics. In general, cult chapels were painted with scenes of daily life and offerings—in case the family failed to provide the real thing.

Inside Isisnofret's tomb building, a limestone sarcophagus was found holding three skeletons—degraded mummies whose ages and sexes have yet to be determined, according to the preliminary Waseda University report.

The team is unsure why the sarcophagus holds three bodies, or even what the original state was. The sarcophagus is missing its internal, wooden coffin—perhaps stolen during the ancient pillaging that seems to have stripped the tomb of funerary objects.

CSI: Saqqara?

Isisnofret's identity remains a mystery, though Egyptologists see clues in the tomb's close proximity to a monument for Pharaoh Ramses II's son Prince Khaemwaset. The prince had a daughter named Isisnofret—a granddaughter of the pharaoh—though the name was common at the time.

Or this Isisnofret may have been one of Ramses II's daughters or one of his approximately 200 wives, the archaeologists said.

Genetic tests may help unlock Isisnofret's identity.

"After making DNA tests, we will realize who it is … ," said Mohamed El Ashry, an Egyptologist who works with the Waseda University team.

Khaemwaset's "mummy is at the Egyptian Museum, and Ramses II's mummy is also at the Egyptian Museum" in Cairo, El Ashry said—making both readily available for DNA testing.

(Related: "Egypt Mummies Moved for DNA Tests; Pharaoh Among Them?")

The University of Chicago's Johnson believes Khaemwaset built tombs for his whole family in the area and expects the Japanese team to find other family members.
 

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