Egyptian Dentists' Tombs Found by Thieves

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
October 23, 2006
Thank thieves for an archaeological discovery with some real bite.

The recent arrest of several tomb raiders led an Egyptian archaeological team to graves of three royal dentists who had been buried in the desert for 4,200 years.

The thieves had launched their own dig in Saqqara—the ancient, pyramid-rich royal cemetery just south of Cairo—Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, told reporters touring the site yesterday (related photo: "Egypt's most beautiful mummy found at Saqqara).

"It seems for the first time that the ancient Egyptians made a cemetery to the dentists, and they are buried in the shadow of the Step Pyramid," said Hawass, who is a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Built for Pharaoh Djoser and named for its staircase-like construction, the circa-2630 B.C. Step Pyramid is believed to be Egypt's oldest pyramid.

Respected Profession

The dentists' tombs date back to ancient Egypt's 5th dynasty, which lasted for 153 years and ended in 2345 B.C.

Archaeologists say the tombs were meant to honor a chief dentist and two others who treated ancient Egypt's pharaohs and their families.

Two hieroglyphs depicting an eye over a tusk—identifying the men as dentists—appear frequently among the symbols decorating the tombs.

One tomb also includes a curse proclaiming that anyone who violates the grave will be eaten by a crocodile and a snake.

The ancient Egyptians "cared about the treatment of their teeth," Hawass told reporters, according to the Associated Press. (Read more about Zahi Hawass and his mission to protect Egypt's artifacts.)

Cathleen Keller is an Egyptologist at the University of California, Berkeley. "Saqqara is probably the single most important private cemetery of the 5th dynasty," she said.

The fact that the tombs were built there reflects the prominent status with which dentists were held in ancient Egypt.

"These are people who on a fairly regular basis would actually touch the person of the king," Keller said.

False Door

The tombs, built of mud brick and limestone, did not contain the dentists' mummies—leaving at least one mystery to be solved.

Hieroglyphs on the tombs give the names of the chief dentist as Iy Mry and the others as Kem Msw and Sekhem Ka.

Hawass said the dentists were not related but must have been partners or colleagues, given that they were been buried together.

Wall figures also depict the chief dentist and his family playing games and presenting offerings to the dead.

It's fairly common for ancient Egyptian tombs to be decorated with colorful scenes depicting their inhabitants in their daily lives.

"I wouldn't expect there to be any depictions [of the tomb owner] working in the royal mouth," Keller said.

"We'd love to see him applying those ancient drills," she said. "But what he's interested in is showing how he conforms to accepted standards of elite representation."

Around the corner from the chief dentist's tomb's entrance, archaeologists found a false door, which tomb builders may have constructed as a gateway to the land of the living for the deceased.

Hawass has said he believes that only 30 percent of what lies beneath Egyptian sands has been discovered.

Likewise, archaeologists say they expect to find more tombs in the area.

"There are vast expanses of areas [at Saqqara] that have simply not been scientifically investigated," Keller said. "The fact that local looters found the tombs is an index to how much more there must be out there."

She added, "Just about every expedition I know of that has gone out to Saqqara to look for tombs has found something."

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