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"Gentrified" Egyptian Burial Chamber Discovered

Dan Morrison in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
August 2, 2007
 
A recycled burial chamber with unusual decorations has been discovered just south of Cairo, archaeologists announced today.

The chamber may offer further proof of how the nobles of Egypt's 26th dynasty (664 to 525 B.C.) "gentrified" the 2,000-year-old necropolis, or vast burial grounds, of their 5th-dynasty predecessors. The necropolis had fallen into disrepair in the intervening millenia.

The find occurred near the three weathered pyramids of Abu Sir—remnants of an original seven—located 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of Cairo.

The monuments were part of a complex built about 4,500 years ago during the 5th dynasty's brief reign, from 2498 to 2345 B.C. The necropolis then served the nobles of Memphis, Egypt's ancient capital.

Twenty centuries later, the site was revived by a new generation of Egyptian nobles, who wanted to be buried near the temples of Saqqara, said Miroslav Verner of the Czech Institute of Egyptology in Prague.

"We believe it is the proximity to the complex of sacred installations in north Saqqara"—just half a mile (one kilometer) away—that led to the building of new tombs at Abu Sir, said Verner, who has been researching the region for decades.

Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities announced that a team led by Ladislav Bareš, also of the Czech Institute, had located the burial chamber of a royal scribe named Menekhibnekau. (Related: "photo: 'Unusual' Tomb of Egyptian Courtier Found" [May 23, 2007].)

The chamber was located about 65 feet (20 meters) underground on a small hill southwest of the Abu Sir pyramid of Neferre.

"It is a very important find," Verner said. "This type of shaft tomb was probably inspired by the substructure of the pyramid of Djozer"—a so-called step pyramid nearby at Saqqara.

Plundered and Abandoned

Czech archaeologists have been excavating Menekhibnekau's tomb since 2006, but only in April did they find the burial chamber.

Inside the chamber, the team uncovered a vaulted ceiling decorated with stars.

Also in the tomb were two large sarcophagi: A massive exterior coffin made of limestone, and a human-shaped interior made of greywacke, a type of dark green sandstone. Both were densely covered with religious texts.

The tomb had been looted and plundered by robbers in the late Roman period, Verner told National Geographic News by telephone from the Czech Republic.

"The remains were completely destroyed," he said.

The bones of the royal scribe, Menekhibnekau, were scattered on the floor.

Among the objects found among his bones was a small rectangular ceramic seal depicting a jackal and nine bound captives.

Book of the Dead Decorations

"The decoration on the sides of the burial chamber differs from other burial chambers unearthed at Abu Sir," said Zahi Hawass, director general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. (Hawass is also a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

"The southern side is decorated with a chapter of the Book of the Dead accompanied by images of guardsmen," Hawass said. (Related: "Ancient Semitic Snake Spells Deciphered in Egyptian Pyramid" [February 5, 2007].)

The book is a collection of mortuary texts consisting of spells and magic formulas used by ancient Egyptians.

On the eastern and western sides, figures representing time accompanied sacred texts and an image of a solar bark, a ship meant to ferry the dead into the afterlife.

Hawass said the discovery of the shaft leading to Menekhibnekau's burial chamber was accidental—just a hint of how much more there is to learn about the necropolis at Abu Sir.

Verner of the Czech Institute of Egyptology said the tomb will have be repaired and reconstructed, and will eventually open to the public.

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