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Cosmic Science

Egypt opens up the next archaeological frontier

Nearly a century after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb focused the world’s attention on Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, archaeologists are turning the spotlight to Saqqara, a site that’s separated by hundreds of miles and centuries of time.

This weekend, antiquities officials formally unveiled 59 decorated coffins, or sarcophagi, with untouched mummies inside them. Mostafa Waziri, the general director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told NBC News that the find reminded him of King Tutankhamun’s tomb — which was found almost intact in 1922.

Saqqara is best known as the site of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which was built around 2650 B.C.E. and is considered the oldest surviving pyramid in Egypt. The newly unveiled sarcophagi, however, come from a much later time, around 600 B.C.E.

To put the timing in context, the Pyramids of Giza were built about a century after the Pyramid of Djoser, in the 2560 B.C.E time frame. King Tutankhamun reigned from 1332 to 1323 B.C.E., and Saqqara’s coffins were buried more than seven centuries after Tut.

The wooden sarcophagi were found stacked in three burial shafts that go about 40 feet deep. They’re colorfully painted, and scores of statuettes and other artifacts were buried along with the mummies. One 14-inch-tall statuette, inlaid with red agate, turquoise and lapis lazuli, represents the Egyptian god Nefertam and is said to be inscribed with the name of its owner, a priest called Badi Amun.

Two of the sarcophagi were opened during Saturday’s unveiling in Saqqara. “We found that the two mummies bear the name and the title of the family,” Khaled El-Anany, Egypt’s minister of tourism and antiquities, told reporters.

Waziri said the sarcophagi and the artifacts would be transferred to the Grand Egyptian Museum, the massive gallery that’s under construction in Cairo and due to have its formal opening next year.

And there’s likely to be more mummies to come. El-Anany said dozens more sarcophagi could be unearthed at the site. “This is not the end of the discovery — this is only the beginning,” he said.

Saqqara, which is about 20 miles south of modern-day Cairo, could well become a high-profile stop for Egyptology enthusiasts. This April, Egyptian authorities completed a 14-year-long renovation project at the Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara and reopened it to the public — unfortunately, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Egyptian officials see archaeo-tourism as a key contributor to the country’s economic recovery in the post-pandemic era. For evidence, you need look no further than the fact that the antiquities ministry has added “tourism” to its official title.

Saqqara’s finds will keep documentary filmmakers and on-screen archaeologists busy as well: The Smithsonian Channel has already announced it’ll be airing a four-part series about the sarcophagi next year, with “Tomb Hunters” as the working title.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

I’ve been an Egyptology fan for decades, and seeing the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibit in Seattle still ranks among my top museum experiences more than 40 years after the fact. The mysteries of Tut’s tomb continue to stir the soul nearly a century after its discovery. But there’s much more to ancient Egyptian history than Tut and Cleopatra.

“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt,” by renowned Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson, is a must-read when it comes to the history of the world’s first nation-state. Wilkinson goes all the way back to before the beginning, stressing how the Nile gave rise to civilization and sustained it over the course of millennia.

"The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt"
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” by Toby Wilkinson (Random House / Cover design by Victoria Allen)

Wilkinson’s account of the twists and turns of pharaonic rule — including the creation of a ruling elite, the exercise of absolute authority and the role of religion — could well get you thinking about the lessons for our own age. And if you ever get to Egypt to see the ancient sites and Cairo’s new Grand Egyptian Museum, this book could serve as a guide to the meaning behind the monuments.

For all these reasons, I’m making “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” October’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Over the course of the past 18 years, the CLUB Club has recognized books with cosmic themes that have been out long enough to become available at your library or secondhand book store.

Past selections have included other tales of bygone civilizations, ranging from “Everyday Life in New Testament Times” to “The Year 1000” to “1491.” But the CLUB Club also highlights tales of sci-fi civilizations, including Frances Hardinge’s “Deeplight” (for September) and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (for August).

Check out the backlist, and if you have recommendations for future CLUB Club selections, pass them along in your comments.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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