Archaeologists digging in the city of Saqqara had a ‘first of its kind’ surprise, encountering two mummified lion cubs, dating back 2,600 years. The cubs were found in a temple with about 20 cat mummies, along with the mummies of three other large cats of undetermined species. Overlooking this cat-filled tomb were roughly 100 painted and gilded metal, wood, or stone (mostly) cat statutes along with a statue of the goddess Neith, patron goddess of Egypt’s 26th dynasty capital, Sais. The prevalence of cats in this area of the city indicates the ancient Egyptians paid particular honor to Bastet, the goddess who took on a cat form, and her son, the lion god Miysis.
For years, Egyptologists and archaeologists often saw images on temple and tomb walls showing people wearing small cones on their head, but could not determine whether these cones were real or symbolic. These were shown on people in group scenes. They were typically worn by men and women, at parties or banquets, or everyday images, such as people hunting and fishing or leisure. Two Amarna mummies from the 14th century BCE solved this riddle when researchers found them wearing 3-inch (7.6 cm) head cones. They proved the cones were real, made of beeswax or (for the wealthy) unguent. Researchers are still discussing whether the cones were functional, holding perfumes or cleansing oils that would melt onto the wearer, fashion, or part of a ritual.
Excavation uncovered a brewery in a North Abydos necropolis believed to date back to approximately 3150 BC. The brewery, with eight areas dedicated to beer production, was able to produce 5,900-gallon batches in large vats secured by clay levers. A joint expedition between researchers from the United States and Egypt believe the beer was for more than drunken fun, though. They believe the brewery may have supplied the frothy beverage for royal rituals and funeral rites. The volume of beer produced at the site, according to New York University archaeologist and joint expedition leader Matthew Adams, would have been enough “to give every person in a 40,000 seat sports stadium a pint.”
The oldest tattoo art from ancient Egypt, was found on two mummies from the predynastic period, around 3100 BCE. The tattoos were discovered on a young man and a female referred to as the Gebelein mummies at the British Museum. While “man and woman have similar tattoos” wouldn’t make news under most circumstances, it significantly changes two beliefs about ancient Egypt’s tattoo practices. First, it means tattooing was practiced earlier than previously believed. Second, it means men were tattooed, too. Tattoos had previously been considered a female practice in the predynastic era, often symbolizing fertility or safe childbirth, or marking their roles as healers and priestesses. Conservationists recently conducted a scan of the mummies, and found the tattoos, previously thought to be just a discoloration, during an infrared scan.
A black sarcophagus was located in Alexandria in 2018, containing the skeletons of two men and a woman. Researchers are using CT scanning and DNA testing to determine if they were related. One CT scan revealed a hole in one of the skulls and a bone fracture in one of the skeletons. This is likely from a trepanation operation, where a hole is drilled into a skull to relieve pressure after experiencing head trauma. One of the skeletons was lying on top of another indicating the tomb had been opened multiple times. The sarcophagus was in rough shape, being found with dark, murky water. They believe it is likely sewage or runoff from the decomposition and mummification process, sparking an Internet meme (#sarcophagusjuice) and a petition to drink the seepage.
Mummy Shop (uncovered late 1800s, additional findings in 2016)
Egyptian-German archaeologists found an entire workshop used for the mummification process at the Saqqara site. The workshop, dated to 664 – 404 BCE., includes embalming tools such as calcite canopic jars for embalming oils, blue faience statutes. One of the most noteworthy finds at the site was a silver gilded mummy mask inlaid with onyx and sparking with semi-precious stones that adorned one of the mummies found in an adjacent burial chamber. The 2016 excavation gives new insights into the mummification process, the tools, oils, and artistic elements that go in to preparing a person for their journey into the afterlife.
Animals were commonly buried with their owners or as offerings to the gods or to accompany them to the afterlife. But a 5,000 year old site in Hierakonpolis (HK6) has left researchers baffled. Tombs containing the remains of animals not commonly found in ancient Egyptian burial practices are raising questions. Among them are baboons, hartebeest, aurochs, a leopard, elephants, even a hippopotamus. Researchers are trying to determine if this collection of strange animals was part of a zoo or if the animals were privately owned pets. The bones have revealed that some of the animals had healed bone fractures, possibly because they were tethered during captivity, the result of a difficult capture, or injuries caused by keepers who didn’t know how to handle them.
Deir El-Medina was an Egyptian community of artisans and workers who helped construct tombs, temples, and monuments in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. This was a community of ‘regular’ people going about their everyday life. Archaeologists from Stanford University recently tested human remains found at Deir el-Medina to gain new insight into health care during the New Kingdom’s 18th to 20th centuries. The Stanford report highlighted a health care system that included paid sick days, free clinic visits for check-ups, and care for disabled workers. Stanford scholar Anne Austin noted the work-oriented mindset of Deir El-Medina residents. One mummy had osteomyelitis but continued to work as the infection spread. This work ethic is similar to a modern mindset, “Rather than take the time off, for whatever reason, he kept going.”
Merrer was an official who oversaw port operations during the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza in the 4th century BCE. His diary was discovered among 40 papyri recorded during Pharaoh Kufu’s 27th year of being king. Merrer recorded details about his trips to the Tura limestone quarry carving the blocks used to construct the Great Pyramids and his administration of the port at the base of the pyramid project. His diary reveals the trip to the quarry took one day, and the return trip, with the stone weighing down his boats, took two, depending on the condition of the Nile at the time. Merrer’s crew moved about 200 blocks a month when the river was favorable.
The excavation of Saqqara revealed more than statues and administrative documents. In 2010, archaeologists revealed the tomb of a queen by King Teti’s pyramid, but were unable to identify her for certain. Excavation of a temple near the tomb revealed the name of this unknown Queen. Her name was carved onto temple walls and obelisk at the tomb entrance. Her name was Queen Neith,King Teti’s wife. The couple ruled Egypt in the Old Kingdom, founding the Sixth Dynasty, during the Age of the Pyramids (2680 to 2180). The discovery of the queen, and her name, fills some gaps in the historic record of the Egyptian dynasties.
The Ptolemaic Dynasty, best known for starting under Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and ending with the rather dramatic death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE, was primarily a Greek dynasty. Despite its Greek flavor, ancient Egyptian traditions flourished. This is evident in the 2010 discovery of the Ptolemaic era Temple of Bastet. Researchers believe the temple was built by Queen Berenice II, Ptolomy III’s wife, during their reign from 246 BCE to 222 BCE. The temple is dedicated to the goddess Bastet, who assumed the shape of a cat. The temple was adorned with roughly 600 cat statues, indicating the ancient Egyptian reverence for cats continued well into Egypt’s Greek period.
Hatshepsut was the rare ancient Egyptian female Pharaoh, reigning from 1473 – 1458 BCE, often depicted with a beard and male clothing to command the respect of a King. She was known for her diplomatic skills and trade rather than warfare to strengthen ties with other nations. After her death, her successor, Thutmose III, ran an anti-Hatshepsut campaign and erased references to her wherever they were found. When archaeologists found her sarcophagus in 1903, her mummy was not in it, but two other mummies were found in nearby coffins. Researchers believe one of the mummies is Hatshepsut’s wet nurse. The other mummy was identified as Hatshepsut herself by matching a molar found in a jar holding the queen’s embalmed organs to an empty tooth socket in the mummy.
Queen Tiye was one of Amenhotep III’s wives and grandmother to King Tutankhamun. She stepped out of her Pharaoh husband’s shadow to achieve prominence on her own merit. In 2006, archeologists from Johns Hopkins University found a life-sized statue of Queen Tiye in the temple of the goddess Mut, constructed around 700 BCE. Unlike most royal portraits, Queen Tiye is shown alone rather than the traditional placement at the side of Akhenaten. The size of the statue and solo placement at the temple indicates that Queen Tiye played a prominent role in honoring Mut, possibly even holding leadership or authority in religious practices.
King Tut’s cause of death wasn’t what we though (2005)
King Tutankhamun’s tomb is one of history’s most celebrated archaeological finds due to the pristine nature of his burial chamber, and the 5,000 artifacts found within. But little is known about the Boy King, who only ruled Egypt for ten or eleven years until his death at age 19 in 1352 BCE. Researchers long believed that King Tut died from a blow to the back of his skull. New technology has allowed researchers to examine King Tut’s remains without taking sample pieces from the body. A CT scan revealed that King Tut did not die from a hit to the back of his head. His death is still a mystery, though. While we know how he didn’t die, it still leaves the possibility of infection from a broken thigh bone (although it doesn’t rule out murder, either).
In 1999, Yale University researchers John and Deborah Darnell found 4,000 year old Semitic writing on a cliffside near the Nile. These writings are the first known examples of ‘alphabetic writing,’ which would evolve into the hieroglyphics used by the ancient Egyptians. Alphabetic writing uses pictures or symbols to represent words; one letter represents one sound of a word, rather than communicating in pictographs, where an image stands for the entire word. It’s the difference between spelling ‘Cat,” with the letters c, a, and t each having a distinct sound to make the word, or drawing a picture of a cat to convey the meaning. The Darnell’s findings mean that Egyptian hieroglyphics developed about 300 years earlier than archaeologists believed.
One day in the Bahariya Oasis of the Western Desert, a guard overseeing a site 380 km west of the pyramids went chasing after a wayward donkey. The donkey’s leg fell into a hole in the ground. The guard looked in, and what he found led researchers to 105 mummies dating back to 332 BCE. Some mummies were encased in cartonnage, others wrapped in linen, some in anthropoid coffins (pottery coffins decorated with a human face), and others gilded with shining death masks. The tombs escaped the clutches of raiders, allowing researchers to preserve the items that help fill in the puzzle of ancient Egyptian culture, golden funerary masks, jewelry, small statues depicting mourners, coins, amulets, and other personal effects.
Despite having a name that sounds more Star Wars than ancient Egyptian, Tomb KV5 is the largest known tomb in the Valley of the Kings. A joint expedition between the American Univesrity in Cairo and the Tehban Mapping Project in 1985-1986 discovered the site. As they removed the debris built up over centuries and made their way through corridors and chambers, they passed a statue of Osiris, god of the dead. This discovery revealed the name of Ramses II inscribed on the wall. The tomb contained at least six of Ramses II’s sons, and may reveal more of his children. As of 2006, archaeologists have uncovered 130 chambers, and believe there are many more to discover.
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