Long-Sought Tomb Unearthed in Egypt


In a tale of booby-trapped tombs and hidden mummies, an archeologist affiliated with UCLA has found one of the most long-sought burial places of ancient Egypt hidden under an old woman’s house in the so-called Valley of the Golden Mummies.

For more than a century, archeologists have sought the tomb of the governor of Bahariya province, the second most powerful man in Egypt during the Roman-influenced reigns of Kings Apries and Ahmose II.

The mystery was broken after residents of the area secretly told archeologist Zahi Hawass about a number of tombs located under a small village of squatters.


When the squatters were removed and the old woman relocated to a newly built house, Hawass, director of the Giza Pyramids and an adjunct professor at UCLA, discovered the vizier’s tomb.

But when he entered it this spring, he found it booby-trapped with a two-foot-deep layer of yellow powder that sickened his team.

When Hawass and his colleagues finally opened the massive 2,500-year-old sarcophagus of the high priest Zed-Khonsu-ef-ankh, they discovered to their dismay that the mummy--undisturbed by looters over 2 1/2 millennia--had been largely destroyed by water leaking from the modern house above it.

Nonetheless, artifacts and inscriptions from the site “will greatly enrich our knowledge of the Roman period in Egypt . . . and of Bahariya itself,” which was a major trade center on the western border of Egypt and protected it from Libya, Hawass said.

The period, called the 26th Dynasty, is now only very poorly understood, he added.

In their other excavations at Bahariya earlier this year, Hawass’ team opened seven additional tombs and discovered another 102 mummies to add to the 105 unveiled in 1999. Like their predecessors, many of the mummies were sheathed in gold, the trait that provided the site’s name.

The Valley of the Golden Mummies has been called the most spectacular archeological discovery in Egypt since the tomb of King Tut because of the large number of well-preserved mummies found there. Tombs from earlier periods in Egypt usually contained only one or two mummies, but vaults at Bahariya had as many as 42. Hawass speculates that there are as many as 10,000 mummies buried under the sands of the oasis.


The discoveries so far show that burial traditions had changed substantially from the earlier dynastic periods. Many of the rituals associated with burial were eliminated, making the process cheaper and thus available to larger numbers of people. Instead of scenes on the walls of tombs, the chests of the mummies themselves carried depictions.

In the later period, mummies could also be pointed in any direction and multiple bodies could be placed in one vault. And because of the large amount of trade in wheat and wine in Bahariya, a much greater proportion of the populace was rich enough to afford fancy entombment.

One of the best-preserved mummies of a wealthy person was a woman wearing a golden mask. Her hair was colored black, and a band of red and yellow flowers was placed on her forehead, which also bore the image of a cobra, a symbol of the pharaohs.

Another woman had a highly decorated wooden panel at her feet that appeared to represent her resurrection. Hawass called the panel “a masterpiece, it is so beautiful.”

For the first time in Egypt, the team brought an X-ray machine to an archeological site and studied many of the mummies. Although most showed little indication of illness, the majority seemed to have died in their 30s or 40s. Hawass thinks they might have developed heart or other problems because of high levels of iron in the local water supply.

“I can see similar problems in the people who live there today,” he said in an interview at his UCLA office.


Century-Long Search for Burial Site

Hawass seems most excited about the discovery of the tomb of Zed-Khonsu-ef-ankh. The existence of the priest of Isis and Osiris was determined from hieroglyphics at other sites by a German scholar in 1900. In chapels commissioned by Zed-Khonsu, the vizier was depicted at the same size as the pharaoh, an indication that he was nearly as powerful.

Egyptian archeologist Ahmed Fakhry began searching for the tomb in the Bahariya region in 1947, with no success. But while Hawass was excavating at Bahariya this year, local people told him the tomb might be under some huts in the area called Sheikh Sobi.

The antiquities authority ordered the removal of 10 houses that were in violation of the antiquities law, and Hawass’ team began exploring the tombs under them. Zed-Khonsu’s was not among them, but a small opening in one led into another room containing a large stone sarcophagus that might have been his. Unfortunately, the opening was too small to pass through, and the room was under a legal house owned by a wizened old woman.

After they built her a new house and demolished the old one, the team opened the room, only to be met with a hideous stink. “I felt as though arrows of fire were attacking me,” Hawass said.

The room had been filled with a yellow powder, later identified as hematite from a nearby quarry. “I put my hand over my mouth, held up my flashlight and plunged through the powder to the sarcophagus,” he said. He was able to brush enough dirt and powder off the sarcophagus to read the name Zed-Khonsu-ef-ankh before being forced back out of the room.

It took 10 days of work by men in gas masks to remove all of the powder. When they sorted through the 60 sandbags of material later, they found a large number of artifacts scattered through it.


The massive limestone sarcophagus presented another problem: a 12-ton lid. Hawass brought in two experts from the pyramids and, with them and three other helpers, spent eight hours in the cramped chamber levering the lid to one side.

Nested inside like a Russian doll was a smaller, alabaster sarcophagus. It took the team another two hours to extract it and remove its lid. When they had succeeded, they were met with bitter disappointment. The wooden coffin inside the alabaster sarcophagus and the mummy itself had suffered extensive water damage, presumably from leakage from the house above it.

They did, however, find six gold amulets representing various gods and goddesses, a winged scarab and canopic jars that once contained the vizier’s organs. They also found seals and beads.

Hawass believes the burial chambers of Zed-Khonsu’s wife, father and brother are all nearby, and he plans to look for them later this year. The relatives were all depicted as being very powerful, so he has high hopes for their tombs as well.


Images from the newly opened tombs are available at Hawass’ Web site, Pictures of the mummies discovered last year are in a new book, “Valley of the Golden Mummies,” to be published by Abrams in October.