Just south of the capital Cairo one comes across the small pyramid of Saqqara. Not far from there, hidden in the sands, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities unearthed a major find - a well-preserved 4,400 old tomb belonging to a Fifth Dynasty royal priest.
Tomb discovered intact
The discovery is “one of a kind [of] the last decades” says Khaled el-Enany from the Ministry of Antiquities. The tomb is exceptionally well-preserved and painted despite its age with walls decorated with hieroglyphs and statues of pharaohs.
The painted decorations within the tomb appear to belong to Wahtye, a royal priest, along with his mother wife and other family members. The tomb evaded looters which is why the discovery itself is remarkable in terms of quality of artifacts.
Construction of Wahtye’s tomb is thought to have been during the Fifth Dynasty of the Old kingdom, during the reign of Neferirkare Kakai.
The tomb itself is 10 metres long, three metres wide and just under three metres high says Moustafa Waziri, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. After the debris was removed from the tomb, archaeologists discovered five shafts.
One was already visited but found to be empty. The remaining four will be excavated in the coming days.
Hopefully a coffin or sarcophagus, even belonging to Wahtye himself will be found among the remaining shafts, says Waziri.
Watch Waziri’s visit to the temple.
Gebel el Silsila – quarry and tombs
Meanwhile, a Swedish-Egyptian archaeological mission at Gebel el Silsila, located between Luxor and Aswan in the south of Egypt, led by Dr. Maria Nilsson and John Ward have discovered tombs likely belonging to quarry workers from the 18th dynasty.
“It’s a shaft tomb that goes down five metres, and at the end of the shaft are two chambers” explains John Ward.
Full interview with John Ward about his team's discovery at Gebil el Silsila
But the problem with this discovery is “it is submerged beneath water. So we’re having to literally pump the water out of it on a daily basis.”
The presence of water is really understood but it has meant that organic material such as paintings have been destroyed.
“So what we're pulling out of there are skeletons, all of the amulets, the funeral wear that they were buried with. The huge pots that carried the grain and the other household wares that they were buried with on their journey to the afterlife," says the Ward.
But so far, the first chamber has proved interesting, with sarcophagi of an excess of “50 adults and children” he adds.
The chambers are a mass burial likely from the 18th dynasty, “the time of Thutmose, Hatshepsut, Amenhotep the 3rd, Akhenaten, those type of household name Pharaohs” explains the assistant direct of Gebel el Silsila project.
Unbeknownst to looters
As is the case in the tomb of Saqqara, this shaft tomb remained untouched and therefore not looted for over 3.5 thousand years.
The tomb itself escaped the eyes of robbers because it was so well hidden. Gebel el Silsila has over 70 tombs and most of them are visible, with “doorways that are carved into the cliff face, into the bedrock.”
But this particular one is more of a “hole in the ground . . . cut through the bedrock in a rectangular fashion and it was completely filled with Nile silt and wind driven sand and bits of stone over the top and vegetation, and there was no depression, so no one would have known it was there.”
Importance of such a discovery
The discovery at Saqqara is remarkable in that the decoration and artifacts have been untouched since burial, yet it is another elite tomb.
But the site of Gebel el Silsila is the “largest and oldest sandstone quarry site in Egypt” says Ward. All the stone from here was sent off to be used in construction of the big temples such Edfu, Komombo, Karnak and Luxor.
Osteological records taken from the tombs so far indicate that the corpses found “are the actual workers themselves. These are the families that worked the quarries of Silsila. These are the stone masons that cut and carved the stone” stresses Ward.
So the remarkable thing about the tomb at Gebel el Silsila is that it finally gives researchers in Egyptology a look into the lives of normal people. “How they lived their lives. How did they live? Where did they live? What did they eat? What was their work? And how did religion play a part in that? How did they play a part in Ancient Egypt itself? Are the types of questions such a find can answer explains Ward.