After only three seasons of excavation, the Valley of the Golden Mummies in the Bahariya Oasis of Egypt is proving to be one of the richest sources of artifacts and information yet encountered in a country that is famous for its mummies.
Even though only a handful of tombs have been opened so far, archeologist Zahi Hawass and his colleagues have already discovered 234 mummies, many of them sheathed in gold, others covered by finely painted, delicate masks.
Many of the tombs appear to have barely been touched by grave robbers and have thus yielded large numbers of golden coins, jewelry and medallions--including two coins bearing the likeness of Cleopatra--as well as elegant statuettes, pottery, figurines and other artifacts that promise to shed new light on an era and place in Egypt's history that has so far received only limited documentation.
The tombs tell the story of a wealthy community in the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history, beginning about 330 BC and stretching to the 5th century AD--a community whose governor considered himself the equal of the reigning pharaoh in power and influence. A major center on a key trading route, Bahariya was also the source of a valuable wine made of fermented dates that gained renown throughout the ancient world.
Bahariya's crucial position and its alcohol production allowed residents to accumulate wealth that they flaunted in their burials, producing time capsules that have remained virtually untouched until today. And as they are being opened, they are producing riches far beyond the expectations of experts in Egypt and abroad.
Many of the first discoveries were documented by Hawass in a book, "Valley of the Golden Mummies," published last year.
The Bahariya Oasis is a large oval depression, about 1,240 square miles, located 260 miles southwest of Cairo. It is marked by hundreds of springs, around which have grown farming communities yielding grapes, dates and other produce.
Until three years ago, Bahariya was a sleepy community of historical interest only because of a temple dedicated to Alexander the Great, erected in 332 BC to commemorate his defeat of the Persians.
And then a donkey owned by an antiquities guard named Abdul Maugoud stumbled on a hole in the sand late one afternoon. Looking into the hole, Maugoud saw something shiny, which he reported to authorities. Excavation revealed the first tomb in a cemetery that is now thought to contain as many as 10,000 mummies.
One of the first tombs explored by Hawass--who is director general of the Giza Plateau and the Bahariya Oasis, as well as an adjunct professor at UCLA--was that of the powerful governor Zed Khensu Eyuf Ankh. Although his tomb had been looted, inscriptions on the walls placed him at the same height as the pharaoh, an indication that he was a very powerful ruler.
The team knew that 19 of his relatives were buried at the site, but it was not until earlier this year that they began excavating them.
One of the "most amazing" tombs, Hawass said, was that of Naesa II, the governor's wife. Her mummy was encased in a limestone sarcophagus, a sign of her wealth because limestone is not native to the area. The rock was mined in Tora--now Cairo--and imported along the same trade route that was used for exporting wine.
The sarcophagus contained 222 shawabti, elegant statues about 6 or 7 inches high, inscribed with her name and meant to serve the deceased in the afterlife. Scattered around the mummy were 100 pieces of gold, "the most ever in one tomb," Hawass said.
Perhaps most impressive, however, was a life-size solid gold heart, "very heavy," that was placed inside the mummy where her own heart would have been. Amethyst reproductions of the heart were also found in the tomb.
"It took us two weeks to take all the gold out of the tomb," Hawass said.
The walls of the tomb also have brightly painted reliefs showing scenes from the afterlife.
Nearby, connected by a tunnel, was another tomb containing the mummy of Badi-Isis, a priest of the goddess Isis who was the father of the governor. His sarcophagus was more humble, made of sandstone. But inside it were 29 intricately carved shawabti, "the best ever found in Egypt," according to Hawass.
Looters had raided the tomb of Badi-Isis sometime in the Roman period, Hawass said, but they left behind a 5-inch golden amulet that was inside the mummy and 10 pieces of gold.
Another tomb may also have contained members of the governor's family, but water and wastes seeping down from a house built on top of it have destroyed the inscriptions.
The houses, built illegally over the tombs, have been a major problem at the site because they block access to the tombs and water from them destroys artifacts. Hawass' team already has destroyed 16 houses and will probably demolish 10 more when they return this fall.
Hawass' team has X-rayed some of the mummies and begun to better understand their lives. The average age of death, they found, was about 40 to 45. A major cause of death was a buildup of iron--from the drinking water--that damaged bones and other internal organs. "We're concerned that this may be a continuing problem and have notified the health authorities," he said. Cancer was also a major cause of death.
The studies are beginning to have an effect on the oasis itself. Last year, 10,000 tourists visited the area, even though most of the mummies, tombs and artifacts are not yet accessible to the public. That number should continue to grow with the recent discovery by paleontologists from the University of Pennsylvania of a large cache of dinosaur fossils in the desert just east of the oasis.
The tourism may prove beneficial for at least some of the residents. Hawass noted that when he first started digging, one of the local residents asked him to make sure to mention the local community in hopes of drawing visitors. "This summer, the fellow opened an Internet cafe."
Hawass will discuss his findings at a symposium at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on Aug. 4. For information, call (213) 763-3534.
Maugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.