Ancient Egyptians were believers in “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” This is demonstrated by the 18,000 shards of broken pottery used as “notepads” called ostraca. It datesto the late Ptolomaic period, around 81 to 51 BCE. The ostraca, uncovered by archaeologists in 2022 was covered in mundane, everyday notes. It held shopping lists, trade records, writing practice, school work, even ancient doodles. It was cheaper and more readily available than papyrus. Researchers believe it is the largest collection of ostraca found in Egypt. Interestingly, they’ve discovered a “bird alphabet,” where, according to Egyptologist Christian Leitz, “each letter was assigned a bird whose name began with that letter.”
The Falcon Shrine is evidence that the Blemmyes, a 4th to 6th century CE band of nomads roaming North Africa, borrowed Egyptian traditions and incorporated them into their own religious practices. The temple features artifacts including a harpoon, statues, and (probably for religious reasons) fifteen headless falcons and some eggs. Falcons were associated with ancient Egyptian religious purposes in other parts of the Nile River valley. But they are rarely found in groups of this magnitude. It also contains a stele with inscriptions discussing the religious practices of the temple. One inscription was very specific about good manners in the temple. It reads: “It is improper to boil a head in here.” Apparently, boiling animal heads was considered disrespectful. Noted.
Archaeological expeditions in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus (now El Bahnasa) uncovered two tombs from the later Ptolemaic era. The Ptolemaic era was when Egyptian culture was heavily influenced by Greek rule. The mummies found inside the tomb possessed gold leaf tongues placed in their mouth. The practice was based on an Egyptian belief that the gold tongue would allow the dead to speak to the god of the underworld, Osiris. One of the tombs, containing a woman and a child, contained two such tongues along with jewelry and statuary. The other tomb, that of a man, had never been opened. It held a mummy so well preserved that the tongue was still in his mouth, along with canopic jars, amulets, and roughly 400 pieces of faience.
Cairo University archaeologists digging at the Saqqara site discovered the tomb of Ptah-M-Wia, the Royal Treasurer under Ramses the Great (1292 – 1190 BCE). His coffin contained treasures of a different sort. While not the gilded Indiana Jones- style treasure, the documents and drawings found in the tomb shed new light into the life of Egyptian society and how their economy worked, and revealed Ptah-M-Wia’s closeness to King Ramses. Archaeologists found Ptah-M-Wia in his original sarcophagus and original tomb, which is quite rare for Egyptian antiquities. Tomb raiders burgled the tombs, sometimes multiple times, leaving sarcophagus empty. Emptied sarcophagus provided an opportunity for someone who was not the original occupant to spend eternity in luxury.
In September of 2020, archaeologists discovered the remains of Aten, a city dating to the reign of Amenhotep III (1391-1353 BCE). The site gives archaeologists and urban historians greater insight into urban systems and the lives of ancient Egyptians from the time of Egypt’s greatest wealth. Researchers unearthed entire neighborhoods, including districts with commercial buildings such as a bakery and administrative buildings. Egyptians typically build their everyday buildings out of mud brick. Which tends to erode faster than the stone used in pyramids or temples. So finding a city as well preserved as Aten almost never presents itself. Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass, has dubbed the city the “lost golden city,” due to the wealth of knowledge it can offer about the lives of the ancient Egyptians.
Karnak temple priest and scribe Nesyamun, who served Ramses XI between 1099 and 1069 BCE, had hoped he would speak in his afterlife as he had in life. Thanks to modern technology, he got his wish. University of London speech scientist David Howard used a CT scan and a 3-D printer to reconstruct his vocal tract, then hooked the print to a loudspeaker and used an electronic signal to reproduce the vocal sound. Because Nesyamun’s tongue muscles had decomposed long ago, and the 3-D printout wasn’t the soft, flexible folds of human vocal cords, the team wasn’t able to recreate speech. What they did create has a tinny, odd sound. The single tone produced is just a first step toward letting Nesyamun speak again.
The excavation of Aten led to a particularly strange discovery: the city’s 10-foot, mud brick wall. The wall’s presence itself is not strange. Most cities of the time had a wall for defense or administrative purposes. Instead of a straight wall enclosing the city, the wall is wavy, also call crinkle crankle or serpentine.Egyptian wavy walls are usually found around houses, temples, and mortuaries. But Aten’s wavy wall encircles the whole city. This form uses fewer bricks than a straight wall without sacrificing the structural integrity or strength. The waves of the wall give it strength, even though it isn’t as thick as a straight wall. They also hold up against lateral force such as wind pressure or ancient military attack.
3-D micro CT imaging has allowed researchers at Swansea University’s Egypt Centre and College of Engineering to digitally unwrap mummified animals. Seeing the ‘unwrapped’ animals gives scientists new understanding about the ritual and meaning behind the animal sacrifice. Animals were frequently mummified and placed in tombs to accompany their owners into the afterlife, or as gifts to present to the gods. Some animals were bred specifically as ‘votive offerings,’ such as snakes, birds, cats, crocodiles, and dogs. The micro-CT scan allowed details to be seen at a resolution 100 times higher than a medical CT scan. It reveals internal details about the animal’s species and cause of death, but does not damage the specimen.
Archaeologists have been able to use new technologies to explore the pyramids, mastabas, temples, and tombs of the Abusir necropolis deeper than ever before. Researchers believe there were six temples dedicated to the sun god Ra constructed in Abusir, the burial space for nobility and Egyptian elite near the Saqqara site. But before 2022, only two had been unearthed. Archaeologists believe they have found four more “sun temples” dedicated to the sun god Ra. The joint Polish and Italian archaeological teams found mud brick and limestone temples that date back to the Fifth Dynasty (2465 – 2323 BCE). It contained tombs that contained clay seals with royal names connected to King Shepseskare.
The Saqquara site has proven to be an archaeological treasure trove. Archaeologists have found 140 coffins, buried for 2,500 years. They’ve also found 40 gilded statues, some with mummies inside in Saqqara. These coffins were found in burial chambers and shafts covered with the traditional Egyptian artwork. Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said these sites were full of “shafts full of coffins, well-gileded, well-painted, well-decorated.” The decoration on the coffins and shafts gives art historians and archaeologists fresh insight into the ‘resident’ of the coffin, Egyptian mythology, and life during the various Egyptian eras. Researchers performed scans on the mummies to learn more about mummification and body preservation from the Late Period (664-332 BCE).
The Egyptians are well known for their appreciation of animals. Cats were honored parts of Egyptian culture, frequently mummified along with their human companions. The Cemetery of Animals at the Saqqara site revealed 75 bronze and wood statues of cats. It also contained a limestone sarcophagus dedicated to Bastet, the cat god. Archaeologists also discovered 25 wooden boxes with mummified cats inside. The cemetery revealed wood statues of mongoose, an ibis statue, and mummies of crocodiles, stone, wood, and sandstone scarabs decorated with scenes of the gods. The gods made an appearance in the cemetery as well. They discovered 73 bronze Osiris statutes, six wood statues of Ptah Soker, 11 wood and faience statues of the goddess Sekhmet, and one wood statue of the goddess Neith.
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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