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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.

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Jerusalem dig finds traces of biblical conquest

Shimon Gibson
Shimon Gibson, co-director of the Mount Zion Archaeological Project, sets the scene at the Jerusalem site. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

One month after offering up archaeological evidence to back up a contested claim about the First Crusade, researchers say they’ve found traces of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in a deeper layer of their excavation on Mount Zion.

The newly reported find demonstrates how the site, just outside the walls of the Old City’s Tower of David citadel, serves as a “time machine” documenting the twists and turns of Jerusalem’s history.

The Babylonian conquest, which dates to the year 587 or 586 BCE, is one of the major moments of Jewish history. As detailed in the biblical Book of Kings, the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem for months, eventually broke through the walls and burned “all the houses of Jerusalem,” including Solomon’s Temple.

After the fall of Jerusalem, the Jewish people were sent into exile – an event that Jews commemorate with mourning and fasting every year on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This year’s Tisha B’Av observance began at sundown tonight.

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Archaeologists resolve a Crusader controversy

Shimon Gibson
Shimon Gibson, an archaeologist working in Jerusalem as a professor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, points out the ruins of a road from the Byzantine era that ran through the heart of the city. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

GeekWire aerospace and science editor Alan Boyle reports on a significant archaeological find during his Middle East science tour. 

JERUSALEM — Exactly 920 years after Jerusalem fell in the First Crusade, archaeologists say they’ve found the first on-the-ground evidence to back up a key twist in the Crusaders’ account of their victory.

A glittering piece of Fatimid Muslim jewelry plays a role in the find. And so does a later chapter in Jerusalem’s history that has overtones of “Game of Thrones.”

The discovery serves as another coup for the Mount Zion Archaeological Project, a decades-long excavation effort that’s being conducted by an international team under the aegis of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. UNC Charlotte’s many-layered dig takes up a wedge of land sandwiched between Jerusalem’s Tower of David citadel and a busy Israeli thoroughfare.

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Crowdsourcing saves digital artifacts in Brazil

Funerary mask
A funerary mask from ancient Egypt is among the artifacts from the now-destroyed Museu documented in digital 3-D models. (UFRJ National Museum via Sketchfab)

One of the greatest tragedies in the museum world transpired over the weekend when fire broke out at Brazil’s Museu Nacional do Rio de Janeiro, touching off a mad scramble to save physical and virtual treasures.

Many of the 200-year-old natural history museum’s 20 million artifacts have been destroyed, including irreplaceable fossils and specimens. One heartbreaking videosweeps around a ruined gallery where only a monumental meteorite survived unscathed.

Museum workers managed to save some artifacts from the blaze, and other items survived because they were on loan to institutions elsewhere. But for many of the pieces, the only hope is to build a digital archive containing videos and photos of the museum’s collection.

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Black sarcophagus opened … and it’s a soggy mess

Opening the sarcophagus
Egyptian experts open an ancient sarcophagus in Alexandria. (Ministry of Antiquities via Facebook)

Egyptian archaeologists say they’ve opened up a mysterious black sarcophagus found during excavations in Alexandria, and although they didn’t uncover the evil curse that some feared, they did uncover an evil-looking mess.

The coffin was “filled with sewage which leaked through the grove in this area, plus three skeletons,” Mostafa Waziri, general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, reported today in an Arabic-language Facebook update.

Photos showed the bones sitting in a pool of dark muck.

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Radar scans rule out hidden rooms in Tut’s tomb

Scanning Tut's tomb
Experts scan the walls of King Tutankhamun’s tomb with ground-penetrating radar. (Egypt Ministry of Antiquities Photo via Facebook)

Ground-penetrating radar scans have failed to confirm any hints that King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the KIngs contains a hidden chamber.

The announcement from Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities brought a disappointing end to a scientific investigation that began more than two years ago, after British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves put forth the claim.

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Archaeologists dissect the ‘Tomb of Christ’

Work in the Edicule
Workers move a marble slab to expose deeper layers in the Edicule within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is revered as the site of Jesus’ tomb. (National Geographic via YouTube)

After more than 15 years of study, experts are laying out the evidence revealing how far back the history goes for the room-sized shrine in Jerusalem that’s revered as Jesus’ tomb.

Spoiler alert: There’s no “Jesus Was Here” graffiti on the walls.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the point of the research. Instead, archaeologists were taking advantage of a conservation effort at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of Christianity’s holiest sites, to look inside the shrine known as the Edicule (which is Latin for “little house”).

The results of their studies were reported today by National Geographic, which chronicled the project for a TV documentary titled “Secrets of Christ’s Tomb.”

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Physicists detect Big Void in Egypt’s Great Pyramid

Pyramid cutaway
A cutaway view of the Pyramid of Khufu shows the location of the “Big Void” as well as a corridor close to the pyramid’s north face. Click on the image for a larger view. (ScanPyramids Illustration)

An international team of researchers has detected a mysterious, previously unknown void deep inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid that may be as large as an art gallery space.

The anomalous space, known as the ScanPyramids Big Void, showed up on imagery produced by tracking concentrations of subatomic particles called muons as they zoomed through the pyramid’s stones.

“We don’t know if this Big Void is made by one structure, or several successive structures,” said Mehdi Tayoubi, president of the Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute and co-founder of the ScanPyramids campaign. “What we are sure about is that this Big Void is there, that it is impressive [and] that it was not expected, as far as I know, by any kind of theory.”

Tayoubi and his colleagues report the discovery in a paper published online today by the journal Nature.

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Scientists spur debate over First Americans

Mastodon unearthed
San Diego Natural History Museum paleontologist Don Swanson points to a rock fragment near a large piece of a mastodon tusk at the excavation site. (San Diego Natural History Museum Photo)

Scientists say the patterns of breakage in mastodon bones found 25 years ago near a San Diego highway suggest that humans battered the beast 130,000 years ago.

That’s a shocker, because before now, the oldest widely accepted evidence of human habitation in North America goes back only about 16,000 years. If the scientists are right, that makes the place they studied, known as the Cerutti Mastodon site, the oldest archaeological site in North America.

“It’s somewhat mind-boggling to have 130,000 years proposed,” said University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins. He has found previous evidence for human habitation in 14,000-year-old preserved poop but wasn’t involved in the latest study, published today by the journal Nature.

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Join the satellite hunt for Peru’s lost cities

Sarah Parcak
University of Alabama archaeologist Sarah Parcak checks satellite imagery of a target site. (National Geographic via YouTube)

Armed with a $1 million TED Prize, archaeologists today launched the GlobalXplorer.org crowdsourcing project to scan satellite imagery for signs of ancient settlements.

“Archaeologists can’t do this on their own,” Parcak told National Geographic, one of the collaborators in the project. “If we don’t go and find these sites, looters will.”

The 38-year-old archaeologist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham has already made a good start, by using satellite images to identify buried pyramids in Egypt and a covered-over Viking village in Newfoundland.

Such feats (and her fedora) have earned her a snazzy nickname – “Indiana Jones of the 21st century” – and more importantly, $1 milllion in seed money from the TED Prize program.

That money has gone toward building a platform that takes in high-resolution images from DigitalGlobe’s satellites and sorts them for perusal by registered GlobalXplorer users. Online tutorials train the users to spot and flag potential archaeological sites, based on subtle variations in vegetation. The most promising crowdsourced sites are put on the list for on-the-ground exploration.

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