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Surprise Egypt Tombs Yield Ornate Coffins, Dog Mummies

Steven Stanek in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
January 30, 2008
 
Four ancient tombs containing well-preserved mummies and ornate painted coffins have been unearthed in El Faiyum, an oasis about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Cairo (see map). (See photos of the tomb treasures.)

One female mummy was found wearing a gilded mask, a rare treasure at the site known as the necropolis of Deir el-Banat. The burial complex is a frequent target for modern-day grave robbers and was thought to have been looted of its riches.

"An important point is that these mummies are almost untouched," said Galina A. Belova, a Russian Egyptologist who led the excavation.

"There are not so many [well preserved] mummies in El Faiyum at the moment. They are very rare."

In a separate tomb, the excavators discovered the first completely intact mummy ever found at the necropolis.

The team of U.S. and Russian archaeologists stumbled upon the burials during routine work in a section of the cemetery, which was used from the early fourth century B.C. to the seventh century A.D.

Some 150 other tombs from various periods and dozens of poorly preserved mummies were also unearthed, though most of the graves had been plundered during a rash of robberies in the 20th century.

Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said some of the newly discovered remains are the best yet found from the Ptolemaic era—the span of Greek rule that began shortly after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.

"One mummy was beautifully gilded, and another is in very good condition," said Hawass, who is also a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. "They show some of the best examples of mummies from this period." (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Archaeologists also found a strange burial on the outskirts of the site containing the nonmummified remains of a child and a group of mummified dogs, a grave unlike any other yet found in Egypt.

Coffins, Mummies, and Masks

The four best preserved and largest of the newfound tombs contained human-shaped coffins that were mostly intact.

Some showed slight damage near the feet, probably the result of ancient robbers rummaging for riches, experts said.

The coffins' exteriors were inscribed with verses and images from the ancient Egytpian Book of the Dead, which Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo (AUC), said were standard decorations "to help you get from this world to the next."

Three of the coffins were wooden and lay parallel. A smaller fourth coffin—likely for a child—was made of papyrus or a similar material and was set at a slightly different angle.

The shared burial may have belonged to a single family, experts said, adding that it is uncommon to find coffins set at different orientations in this region.

Inside two of the coffins, mummies were covered at the head and feet with brightly colored cartonnage—a papier-mâché-like material often plastered over mummified bodies and decorated.

One of the mummies bore a cartonnage mask painted in gold, symbolizing eternity.

"It was a very sweet little mask," said Ikram, who x-rayed the mummies after the discovery.

In a nearby tomb, archaeologists found a completely intact mummified female—the first to have eluded generations of treasure hunters here.

The archaeologists said they plan to do more research, including facial reconstructions of the mummies, to determine their origins.

Robbers

Thievery has damaged almost all the tombs in Deir el-Banat, making it hard for experts to know what the graves looked like in antiquity.

"The robbers come in regularly, so it is quite unusual to get intact burials," said Ikram of AUC.

As a measure of how widespread the crime is, the excavations even turned up some contemporary digging tools, which were probably stashed away by frightened thieves who left hastily.

The shallowness of the tombs—some of which are no more than a meter below the surface—makes them particularly attractive for looters.

"Robbers have always investigated cemeteries since the ancient times," Belova, the Russian archaeologist, said. "We have a lot of robbers who want to have a lot of gold."

The newly unearthed tombs may have been spared because of their relatively simple exteriors. Belova said her team had to rapidly document and remove the items because of security concerns.

She also said she hoped the discovery would change Deir el-Banat's reputation as a site that has been looted clean.

"It looks like a robbed area, but robbers cannot do a systematic study of a cemetery," she said. "That's why we still have a lot of chances to find something new here."

Mummified Dogs

One of the strangest discoveries made at the site was the nonmummified body of a child buried with several mummified dogs.

The human remains, which were naturally mummified by the arid climate, were partially covered in a sack, its lower half surrounded by crudely mummified canines ranging from puppies to fully mature animals.

"They are put in any which way, with no real sense of orientation," said AUC's Ikram, an animal mummy expert.

Ancient Egyptians were known to keep domesticated pets and sometimes were buried with them.

(Read related story: "Mummy Birds Recovered From Egypt Factory" [August 9, 2007].)

Other animals were included in burials as part of a religious ritual, but this find is unlike any that has been documented, he said.

"The kind of deposit [of animals] you have here is neither like a sacred deposit [nor] like a pet deposit," Ikram said.

"It really is a very interesting new page in the archaeology of humans and animals in Egypt."

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