New TV Special Egypt Eternal Explores Lost Tombs

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 4, 2002
Finds uncovered at Saqqara, a 5,000-year-old burial ground on the banks of the Nile, are providing archaeologists with unprecedented clues as to how the ancient Egyptians lived their daily lives.

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's antiquities, and French archaeologist Alain Zivie, have spent years exploring the mysteries, secrets, and treasures of Egypt's past. In a new National Geographic Television Special, Egypt Eternal: The Quest for Lost Tombs, the archaeologists take viewers along as they uncover tombs meant to last for eternity.

For 3,000 years, across 31 Egyptian dynasties, Saqqara served as a burial place for royalty, government officials, courtiers, aristocrats, and even commoners. Sitting across the river from Memphis, Egypt's first capital city, the vast necropolis is the site of the world's very first pyramid—the Step Pyramid of King Djoser—a monument designed to ease the ancient pharaoh's passage to the afterlife.

Maia, Wet Nurse to a God

French archaeologist Alain Zivie, research director at France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, has been excavating at Saqqara for more than two decades. One tomb, though not that of a royal, has provided new insights about Egypt's most famous pharaoh, Tutankhamen.

King Tut, who ruled from 1333 to 1323 B.C., has fascinated archaeologists and the general public ever since Howard Carter uncovered his richly-appointed burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. While the tomb provided many clues about his short reign and aroused speculation about the manner of the boy-king's death, little is known of his birth.

The tomb of his wet nurse, Maia, may begin to change that. After Tutankhamen's mother died, Maia, who was probably a member of the pharaoh's inner circle, became the future king's wet nurse. Her opulent tomb shows that she was held in high regard and is bringing archaeologists one step closer to the truth about King Tut's childhood.

"Very quickly, I understood that this tomb belongs to only one woman," said Zivie. "And this is very exceptional, because this tomb is huge. She certainly had a kind of royal favor. Moreover, she had a lot of titles showing that she was much appreciated. I was looking for a name, and I found it—'the wet nurse who fed the flesh of the god.'"

Mystery of Netjerwymes

Saqqara also contains the tomb of Netjerwymes, a wealthy man with the then-rare ability to read and write.

Netjerwymes' burial chamber contained a statue of Ramses the Great, one of Egypt's most powerful rulers, who reigned from approximately 1279 to1213 BC. Ramses stands in front of a much larger statue of Hathor, the goddess of creation and guardian of the dead, appearing in the guise of a cow.

Who was this man welcomed to the afterlife by the most famous of pharaohs and promised resurrection by a goddess of the dead?

The riddle is unraveled when Zivie travels to Thebes and finds the text of a peace treaty forged between Egypt and her enemy the Hittites emblazoned on the walls of a temple. The ancient stone inscription identifies Netjerwymes as one of Ramses' trusted envoys, sent to negotiate peace between the two ancient superpowers.

Zivie finds these glimpses into history as exciting as the tombs and artifacts he is uncovering.

"Now, it's a historical figure who is coming to life," said Zivie. "And this is as important as the cow of Hathor, or the statue [of Ramses]. It's not only an exceptional masterpiece, it's not only a beautiful tomb, but it is history."

Egypt Eternal: The Quest for Lost Tombs premieres Wednesday, October 9, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on PBS (check local listings). The October 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine further explores the secrets of Saqqara.

Additional National Geographic News and Other Resources on Ancient Egypt:
Update: Third "Door" Found in Great Pyramid
Pyramid Builders' Village Found in Egypt
Rising Water Table Threatens Egypt's Monuments
Floods Swept Ancient Nile Cities Away, Experts Say
Study Unwraps Ancient "Recipe" for Mummies
Egyptian Archaeologist Named National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence
Ancient Egypt Home Page: Photos, Diagrams, More
Expedition Ancient Egypt: Four Days to Tackle It All
At the Tomb of Tutankhamen
How to Make a Mummy
Kids Book: Mummies of the Pharaohs
Kids: Mummies Unmasked
The Mummy Road Show on the National Geographic Channel
Mummy Quiz
More Golden Mummies Emerge From Egyptian Valley
Mummies Reflect Primal Urge to Extend Human Life
Egyptian Mummies Included Animals

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