Egypt discovers ancient coffins in major archaeological find

Egypt unveils a major archaeological discovery in the Saqqara necropolis, with 59 coffins dating back more than 2,500 years.

al-monitor Sarcophaguses, excavated by the Egyptian archaeological mission that discovered a deep burial well with more than 59 human coffins closed for more than 2,500 years, are displayed during a press conference at the Saqqara necropolis, south of Cairo, Egypt, Oct. 3, 2020. Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images.
Doaa Fareed

Doaa Fareed

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Archaeology

Oct 8, 2020

The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities revealed Oct. 3 a major archaeological discovery in the Saqqara necropolis south of Cairo. The Egyptian archaeological mission was behind the discovery of 59 ancient wooden coffins stacked on top of each other dating back more than 2,500 years. The coffins were found in shafts buried at different depths. 

According to the ministry’s statement on its official Facebook page, Egyptian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled al-Anani said the coffins were in good condition preserving their original colors. He said that according to preliminary studies, the coffins belong to priests, high-ranking statesmen and prominent figures in society of the 26th Dynasty.

“The discovery is ongoing. We have found layers of coffins, which will be announced later,” Anani said.

The discovery was announced amid extensive media coverage at the Saqqara archaeological necropolis in the presence of around 60 foreign and Arab ambassadors, and a number of local and foreign news agencies. One of the coffins was opened before the reporters to show the mummy inside.

Sabri Farag, director general of the Saqqara archaeological site, told Al-Monitor, “We started excavation work in August and we continue to work. We began by removing the rubble and then we located the shafts buried at 10, 12 and 13 meters [31, 39 and 42 feet] under the ground. We then found the coffins. The working conditions were difficult as all precautionary measures were being followed due to the coronavirus pandemic.”

“So far we have discovered 30% of the Saqqara antiquities, the remaining 70% is still buried,” he added. 

According to the Ministry of Tourism’s Facebook statement, Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said that the works were carried out in several stages. He explained that the mission began excavation work in August and had first found 13 coffins and later 14 as the excavation works were ongoing, bringing the total number of coffins to 59.

This is in addition to the discovery of 28 wooden statues of Ptah-Sokar, patron of the Saqqara necropolis, and a large number of shabti dolls and amulets, as well as a bronze statue of the god Nefertem decked out in precious stones, Waziri said. The Nefertem statue is 35 centimeters (14 inches) long and on its base is written the name of its owner, the priest Badi-Amun, according to Waziri.

The coffins and the other archaeological pieces will be displaced at the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is currently being built near the Giza Pyramid complex. They will be put on display in the hall opposite the hall dedicated to exhibit the cache from the Asasif cemetery discovered in Luxor in 2019, which included around 32 closed coffins belonging to priestesses of the 22th Dynasty, Anani said during the unveiling ceremony.

The Saqqara site is part of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, which includes 38 pyramids in Giza, the sites of Saqqara, Abusir and Dahshur. It is also home to over 9,000 monuments and cemeteries from different periods dating from the First Dynasty to the Greco-Roman era. 

The Memphis site and its cemeteries were registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.

Ibrahim Eid, vice-dean of the Faculty of Archaeology and Tourism Guidance at Misr University for Science and Technology, told Al-Monitor, “Since 2011 and the consequent events, this [archaeological] area had suffered from neglect, looting and encroachments on the part of citizens and antiquity dealers due to the security chaos. But after 2013 and with the return of stability in Egypt, the Saqqara area was safe and ready to receive foreign and Egyptian missions. This was when the archaeological excavation works began resulting in several major discoveries including this recent one.”

He added, “This huge discovery will draw the world’s attention to Egypt, not only because of the coffins and the statues found, but also because of the scientific research and studies that are being carried out to further shed light on the Egyptian civilization.”

The Saqqara site has been subject to several discoveries recently, including the cache of mummified animals and sacred birds, and five mummified cats in November 2019. This in addition to the December 2018 discovery of the cemetery of Wahti, one of the most senior officials in Saqqara from the era of Pharaoh Neferirkare Kakai, the third king of the Fifth Dynasty. The cemetery, which is over 4,400 years old, was unscathed with colorful tombs. 

In March, the Pyramid of Djoser, the first stone building in history, was inaugurated after restoration works that began in 2006 and came to a halt in 2011, and then resumed and were completed with Egyptian funding at a cost of 150 million Egyptian pounds ($9.55 million).

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