We all know about mummies. According to ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, the heart/soul of the deceased is placed on a scale and weighed against the feather worn by Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. If the scale tips one way or the other, a huge animal will devour the deceased. But if the scale is balanced, the god Horus will escort the deceased to Osiris and Isis, the gods who preside over the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians 040mummified their dead to prepare them for their final journeys.
I remember the day, four years ago, when I learned of Egypt’s most recent—and most spectacular—mummy find. While excavating the tombs of the pyramid builders at Giza,a I was told that a visitor awaited me in the excavation tent. It was Ashry Shaker, the chief antiquities inspector of the Bahariya Oasis, which is located about 235 miles southwest of Giza. His voice trembling, Ashry told me that just the day before, an antiquities guard had been riding his donkey about 4 miles south of el-Bawiti, the site of Bahariya’s ancient capital, el-Qasr. The donkey stumbled after striking the edge of a tomb. Looking into the tomb, the guard saw mummies.
“You’ll have to leave Giza,” Ashry told me, “because there are lots of mummies.”
The tomb contained dozens of remarkably well-preserved mummies from the Roman period (30 B.C.–395 A.D.). Many of them were sumptuously decorated with imagery of gods and other figures associated with death, embalming and rebirth. These mummies, moreover, did not resemble Hollywood mummies, which always seem to be wrapped in old tape; many of the Bahariya mummies had lovely gilded faces. They seemed to look back at me—like real people peering across the millennia. Three years later, in the fall of 1999, we discovered three more large tombs, bringing the mummy count to 105. And we have just begun to excavate this mummy-rich land. Probably thousands of mummies lie beneath the sands of the Bahariya Oasis.
In ancient times, long before the Roman period, the region of el-Bawiti was a caravan station for Bedouin traders, merchants and soldiers. In 1900 the German archaeologist Georg Steindorff discovered a New Kingdom tomb, dating to about 1295 B.C., just south of el-Bawiti. An inscription identifies the tomb as belonging to Amenhotep Huy, governor of Bahariya. This is the earliest structure found in the region to date.
Several tombs in Bahariya date to the 26th Dynasty (664–525 B.C.), one of the last periods of native Egyptian rule. The most spectacular of these tombs belonged to a family who lived during the reign of Ahmose II (570–526 B.C.). The lavish tomb of Zed-Amun-efankh, with its colorful wall paintings, indicates that he was a rich and powerful man—probably a businessman whose wealth brought him privileges usually reserved for priests and deified kings. (It is only in this late period that we find private individuals with such ornate tombs.) Zed-Amun-efankh’s son, Bannantiu, may have been richer still, judging from the elaborate decoration in his tomb. Two scenes in Bannantiu’s burial chamber show him standing before the gods in the Hall of Judgment, having merited eternal life. His family’s status, despite the absence of religious or political credentials, earned him special treatment from the gods.
These pre-Roman tombs were excavated in the 1940s by the Egyptian 041archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry. Upon concluding his excavation, Fakhry suggested that “the tombs of the other members of the family are still buried, either under the houses of el-Bawiti or in one of the ridges surrounding it.”
Perhaps Bahariya’s most intriguing ancient structure is the Temple of Alexander the Great, which was dedicated in 332 B.C. After Alexander founded the city of Alexandria, he made a pilgrimage to Siwa in the far western desert.b There he visited the famous oracle of the god Amun, the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon, whom Alexander identified with Zeus. According to legend, the oracle recognized Alexander as Amun’s son, thus restoring in Alexander the pharaonic line that had been disrupted during the period of Persian rule in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.
Alexander crossed the Sahara by moving from oasis to oasis. One stop was Bahariya, which is why a temple was built there in his honor. This temple remained in use for hundreds of years—as suggested by a fifth-century A.D. ostracon found in one of the temple’s storerooms.
The Temple of Alexander the Great consists of two chambers built of sandstone. The inner sanctuary is decorated with scenes of Alexander, in some instances accompanied by the mayor of the Bahariya Oasis, making offerings to Amun. A wall surrounded the temple, separating it from the priests’ homes, the home of the temple administrator and 45 mudbrick storerooms. Just before the stone gateway that led into the temple was a 4-foot-high granite altar inscribed with the name of Alexander the Great (this altar is now in the Cairo Museum). In Greco-Roman times, people probably chose Bahariya as a burial place because of its proximity to the holy Temple of Alexander the Great.
When we opened the Roman period mummy tomb in May 1996, we decided to keep the news quiet. The Bahariya Inspectorate of Antiquities did not have sufficient funding to mount a full-scale excavation, nor were there enough qualified conservators to preserve the mummies. And we knew that other tombs existed: Ahmed Fakhry found three tombs in the town of el-Bawiti in 1947, but he was working on another project, so he simply covered up the tombs without excavating them. We feared that news of ancient tombs with magnificent burial goods might prompt looting, so we kept our cards close to the vest until we were ready to play our hand.
In the fall of 1999, we were ready. We opened four squares, revealing a total of four tombs. The first mummy we found (in Tomb 54) was that of a woman about 5 feet tall. This mummy has a gold mask; the gilding also extends over the neck and down the chest, forming a kind of breastplate. The breastplate culminates with the woman’s breasts, represented in relief as two circular disks. (We found about 60 mummies with this extraordinary gilding; thus we have named the site the Valley of the Golden Mummies.)
The breastplate is intricately decorated with three columns of relief scenes. The central column is divided into three registers, or panels. The upper register shows a box or coffin (possibly representing the mummified woman’s death), from which emerges a head with two wings (possibly representing the rebirth of the soul). The middle register shows a recumbent Anubis, the jackal-headed god associated with embalming. The bottom register, which runs between the mummy’s breasts, consists of two concentric squares, one left in gold and one painted red, with a black ox painted in the center. Other scenes on the mummy’s breastplate include a relief of three cobras crowned with sun disks and reliefs of the four children of the god Horus.
The woman wears a beautiful crown with four decorative rows of red-colored curls. Behind each ear appears a goddess, Isis on one side and Nephthys on the other; these goddesses, who protect the deceased’s soul with their wings, are often found paired in funeral monuments and on mummy cartonnages (layers of linen or papyrus, stiffened with plaster, that are wrapped around the corpse and then painted or gilded).
Tomb 54, it turned out, contained 43 mummies. This tomb, cut into the bedrock, 042consists of an entranceway, or the “room of handing over,” and two burial chambers. During a burial, two people associated with the deceased would have stood in the entranceway; the mummy would have been passed down to them, and they, in turn, would have passed the corpse to two other people standing inside the tomb. Then the body would have been laid on a burial shelf cut into the rock a few feet above the floor—possibly next to other, already interred mummies.
In Tomb 54 we found two very touching mummies. A woman lay beside her husband, her head turned lovingly toward him. It appears that the husband died first; the woman then must have asked her family to place her next to him when she died so that she could feel his presence for all eternity.
Artifacts were scattered about the tomb, such as statues of women in mourning. These statues have their arms raised in the air, as if bewailing the death of a loved one. We found earrings, bracelets strung with amulets, and different kinds of pottery, including food trays and wine jars. We also found many coins from the period during which the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt (332–30 B.C.); one of the coins depicts Cleopatra VII (51–31 B.C.), the lover of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
In our second square, we found another gilded mummy with mask and breastplate. This one was a man, about 50 years old, with a long face and eyes angled ever so slightly upward. He wears a gold crown attached by a fillet running around the forehead; the crown is inlaid with sparkling blue, red and turquoise stones. On the right and left sides of the crown are scenes of plants and, once again, depictions of the protective goddesses Isis and Nephthys.
The breastplate of this male mummy, like that worn by the female mummy, contains three distinct columns of scenes in bas-relief. The central column is separated from the other two by vertical bands of inlaid stones, of the same type as those decorating the crown. Another horizontal band of inlaid stones marks the top of the central column, a few inches beneath the man’s chin.
The central column consists of three registers. The upper one presents a winged human figure, perhaps a representation of the deceased’s ba (individual personality)—or perhaps a depiction of the goddess Nut (the sky goddess who gives birth to the sun each morning). On the second register are two children of Horus, Imesty and Dua-mutef. In the pharaonic period, Imesty was connected with Isis and Dua-mutef was connected with the goddess Nut. On the third register is a seated bird figure, which may represent an ibis, the bird sacred to Thoth, god of wisdom.
The left- and right-hand columns bear similar decoration: depictions of Nephthys, all four children of Horus (Imesty, Hapy, Qebeh-senwef and Dua-mutef) and the jackal-headed embalming god Anubis, who in one scene holds a key to the cemetery.
Another tomb resembles a catacomb, with two layers of burial shelves, one stacked above the other. In this tomb we found the gilded mummy of a child. Also in this tomb was a mummy covered in linen, without any gilding; it resembles mummies from the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.) as well as the mummies in Hollywood movies.
During the Roman period, the population in Egypt was about seven million. We estimate that at this time the Bahariya Oasis was home to about 30,000 people. (Today the area has about 450,000 inhabitants.)
From the evidence of our mummies, the oasis was extremely prosperous in the first few centuries A.D. Only the very rich could have afforded to gild their mummies and to have their mummies’ cartonnages inlaid with gemstones and painted with such beautiful scenes.
Where did this wealth come from? In antiquity, the Bahariya Oasis was famous for its wine, which the inhabitants made from both dates and grapes. Bahariya wine was shipped throughout the Nile Valley. (We have excavated an ancient winery not far 043from el-Bawiti, the site of the four tombs. And near the tombs we found a large statue of Bes, the god of fertility and childbirth, who also protected vineyards.) This was how the desert supported such a large population, and this was why so many wealthy people lived there, did business there and chose to be buried there—less than a mile from the Temple of Alexander the Great, who they believed was the son of the high god Amun and the successor to the pharaonic line of Egyptian rulers.
It is often said that the art of mummification deteriorated during the Roman period. Our excavations prove the opposite: In no other period of Egyptian history were mummy-making techniques more creative or advanced. Most of the mummies we have released from the earth are in an excellent state of preservation; once restored, their decoration gleams as brightly as it did 2,000 years ago. The Bahariya artisans even brought a new technique to the art of mummification: They strengthened the mummy by placing rods made of reeds on each side of the desiccated corpse before wrapping it in linen. This made the mummy very sturdy, able to last much longer than mummies from the pharaonic period.
More mummies await us. We recently discovered another underground chamber. From what we can tell, this tomb is from an earlier period, the 26th Dynasty (664–525 B.C.), the last major native Egyptian dynasty to rise to power before Egypt came to be ruled by the Persians, the Ptolemaic Greeks and the Romans. The problem, however, is that this tomb lies under some modern dwellings.
After consulting with Bahariya’s chief antiquities inspector, Ashry Shaker, we concluded that the only way to enter this chamber was to demolish ten houses. We arranged a meeting with the owners of the houses. It turned out that they had no legal right to the land, nor could they prove that they owned the houses. This raised an ethical problem for us: By law, the government simply could not compensate these people for property that, legally speaking, did not belong to them. I met with the mayor of Bahariya to discuss how we would recompense the homeowners. We decided to give them each a piece of land. Surprisingly, when I explained our decision to the homeowners, they were very pleased. Why? A grinning Ashry Shaker told me that most of them had other houses in town, so the extra piece of property—this time perfectly legal and above-board—came as an unexpected boon.
This 26th Dynasty tomb and much else lie in store for us in our upcoming season, and the next, and the one after that. Who knows? Maybe we will find mummified Roman officials. Or mummies even more lavishly decorated than the ones from our four tombs, or a cache of spectacular burial goods? This is why I love my job—the sense of anticipation, the daily surprises, the wonder.
We all know about mummies. According to ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, the heart/soul of the deceased is placed on a scale and weighed against the feather worn by Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. If the scale tips one way or the other, a huge animal will devour the deceased. But if the scale is balanced, the god Horus will escort the deceased to Osiris and Isis, the gods who preside over the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians 040mummified their dead to prepare them for their final journeys. I remember the day, four years ago, when I learned of Egypt’s […]