Thursday, January 31, 2008

Surprise Egypt Tombs Yield Ornate Coffins, Dog Mummies

Four ancient tombs containing well-preserved mummies, ornate painted coffins, and mummified dogs have been unearthed in El Faiyum, an oasis about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Cairo.

A female mummy was found wearing a gold mask, a rare treasure on the site known as the necropolis of Deir el-Banat. The funeral complex is a frequent target for the current grave robbers and had been thought plundered its riches.

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

"There are not so many [good condition] mummies in El Faiyum at this moment. They are very rare."

In a separate grave, discovered the first excavator completely intact mummy ever found in the necropolis.

The team of American and Russian archaeologists stumbled upon the burials as part of the routine work in a section of the cemetery, which was used from the early fourth century BC In the seventh century AD

Some 150 other tombs from different eras and dozens of poorly-preserved mummies have been excavated, although most of the tombs were plundered during a rash of robberies in the 20th Century.

Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, that some of the newly discovered ruins are still the best, from the Ptolemaic period, the range of Greek domination began shortly after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC

"A mummy was beautiful gold, and another is in very good condition," said Hawass, which is also a National Geographic Explorer-in-residence. "They show some of the best examples of mummies from that time." (The National Geographic Society has National Geographic News.)

Archaeologists also found a strange funeral at the edge of the area with the nonmummified remains of a child and a group of mummified dogs, a grave unlike any other so far in Egypt.

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 pictures from the old Egytpian Book of the Dead, the Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo (AUC), said that was standard decoration "to help you get out of this world in the next. "

Three of the coffins were made of wood and were parallel. A smaller fourth coffin probability of a child-was made of papyrus or a similar material, and was at a slightly different angle.

The joint funeral have belonged to a single family, experts said, adding that it is rare to find coffins at different orientations in the region.

Inside two of the coffins, mummies were in the head and legs with colorful papier-cardboard material as often plastered mummified body and decorated.

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

"It was a very sweet little mask," said Ikram, the X-ray mummies after the discovery.

In a grave nearby, archaeologists found a completely intact mummified woman-the first ever major generations of treasure hunters here.

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


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.

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."