Cosmic Science

More coffins — and mysteries — unearthed in Egypt

The historical hits keep coming from Egypt’s Saqqara dig: Today archaeologists announced the discovery of more than 50 wooden coffins, found inside 52 burial shafts that go almost 40 feet deep.

An excavation team headed by Zahi Hawass, one of Egypt’s best-known archaeologists, also explored the funerary temple of Queen Nearit — parts of which were found in previous years. Nearit was one of the wives of King Teti, who ruled Egypt more than 4,000 years ago and built a pyramid next to the newly excavated site in Saqqara.

The finds promise to shed light on more than a millennium’s worth of ancient Egyptian history.

“These discoveries will rewrite the history of this region, especially during the 18th and 19th dynasties of the New Kingdom, during which King Teti was worshiped and the citizens at that time were buried around his pyramid,” the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said in a statement published to Facebook.

The Saqqara necropolis, which is situated about 20 miles south of Cairo, has been in the news due to a series of revelations — including the discoveries traced in a recent Netflix documentary titled “Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb.”

The ministry said the wooden coffins ranked among the most important discoveries of the current mission. The earlier finds focused on more recent eras of Egyptian history.

“This is the first time that coffins dating back 3,000 years have been found in the Saqqara region,” the ministry said. “The discovery confirmed that the Saqqara area was not used for burial during the Late Period [from 532 to 335 B.C.E.] but also during the New Kingdom.”

Archaeologists also found a luxurious mud-brick shrine dating back to the New Kingdom. “It reaches to a depth of 24m (78 feet) below the ground level without hitting the burial chamber yet,” the ministry said.

Among the artifacts found in the burial shafts were statues of Egyptian deities, a papyrus inscribed with a chapter from the Book of the Dead, funerary statuettes and masks, and playing boards for Senet and other ancient games.

“Many artifacts were found that represent birds such as geese, as well as a magnificent bronze axe, indicating that its owner was one of the army leaders during the New Kingdom,” the ministry said.

One shaft held a well-preserved limestone tablet that served as a memorial to the the overseer of the king’s military chariot, a man named Kha-Ptah. The upper part of the tablet shows the overseer and his wife paying tribute to the god Osiris, while the lower part shows him surrounded by six of their children.

Experts also used X-ray scans to determine the condition of the mummies found inside the shafts. The ministry said one mummified woman was found to suffer from a disease known as Mediterranean fever or swine fever, which caused an abscess in her liver.

The Saqqara archaeological mission is headed by Zahi Hawass, who works in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and through Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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