Rare Egyptian "Warrior" Tomb Found

Steven Stanek in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
February 15, 2008
An unusual, well-preserved burial chamber that may contain the mummy of an ancient warrior has been discovered in a necropolis in Luxor.

Scientists opened the tomb—found in Dra Abul Naga, an ancient cemetery on Luxor's west bank—on Wednesday. (See an Egypt map.)

Inside the burial shaft—a recess crudely carved from bedrock—experts found a closed wooden coffin inscribed with the name "Iker," which translates to "excellent one" in ancient Egyptian.

Near the coffin they also found five arrows made of reeds, three of them still feathered.

A team of Spanish archaeologists made the surprise find during routine excavations in a courtyard of the tomb of Djehuty, a high-ranking official under Queen Hatshepsut whose burial site was built on top of graves dating to the Middle Kingdom, 2055 to 1650 B.C.

(Related: "Rare Middle-Class Tomb Found From Ancient Egypt" [January 18, 2008].)

Wealthy Warriors

The coffin dates to Egypt's Middle Kingdom era, though the cemetery is better known for its use during the New Kingdom, 1550 to 1070 B.C.

Based on the coffin's inscriptions and pottery found near it, experts date the burial to the early reign of the 11th dynasty, which lasted from 2125 to 1985 B.C. Soldiers played an important role in society during that time, when Egypt was reunified after years of civil war.

Some intact burials from that period had been found in the 1920s, but the leader of the new excavation, Jose Galán of the Spanish National Research Council, said the new find could offer a fresh look into the era's burial customs.

"It's fairly uncommon to find nowadays an 11th-dynasty intact burial. This is really remarkable," Galán said.

"It gives us information about the continuous use of the necropolis and ... about a period that was not so well documented."

The discovery of burials belonging to soldiers and mercenaries, who had elevated status in the wartime society, are even rarer, according to Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

Only "a handful" have ever been unearthed, Ikram said.

"It shows that there were a lot of warriors that had been in use," she said.

"Because of their prominence in calming things down [after the civil war], they probably were wealthier and regarded with more honor than in early periods, and that is why they had nice burials."

Bows and Arrows

The wooden coffin—adorned with drawings of Iker presenting offerings to the goddess of the heavens, Hathor—was fairly well preserved, though it suffered some damage from flooding and termites, according to experts who pried it open.

Inside the coffin, the archaeologists found Iker's mummy, lying on its left side next to two bows and three staffs, which would have been used to indicate his high rank.

(Related: "Surprise Egypt Tombs Yield Ornate Coffins, Dog Mummies" [January 30, 2008].)

"Usually the important people [carried a staff] as a way to be recognized as chiefs of a tribe or family," said Galán, adding that his team had not yet analyzed the newfound artifacts.

The presence of bows and arrows means that Iker was likely a hired soldier in the service of a king, though the exact details are unclear.

"It means this person was a fighter," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

"He was fighting in the army or something like that ... there were many fighters joining the king, and this could be one of them," said Hawass, also a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence. (National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Spanish archaeologist Galán and his team plan to remove the mummy from the coffin to x-ray it and determine more specifics.

"We don't know about the origin of Iker," Galán said. "We don't even know if he was Egyptian, Nubian, or Libyan."

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