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Ancient Egyptian Cemetery 'Bigger Than We Thought'

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

SAQQARA, Egypt: A pair of 4,300-year-old pharaonic tombs discovered at Saqqara indicate that the sprawling necropolis south of Cairo is even larger than previously thought, said Egypt's top archaeologist. The rock-cut tombs were built for high officials, one responsible for the quarries used to build the nearby pyramids and the other for a woman in charge of procuring entertainers for the pharaohs.


Egypt's antiquities capo, Zahi Hawass, described it as a "major, important discovery," saying that the two new tombs date "back to 4,300 years ago."


"The discovery of the two tombs is the beginning of a big, large cemetery," he said.


Indeed, the discovery indicates that there is even more to the vast necropolis of Saqqara located 19 kilometers south of the capital Cairo, he added.


In the past, excavations have focused on just one side of the two nearby pyramids, the Steppe Pyramid of King Djoser and that of Unas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty. The area where the two tombs were found, to the southwest, has been largely untouched.


"This means the royal cemetery is bigger than we thought," said Saleh Suleiman, the archaeologist responsible for the excavation of the two tombs.


Hawass said excavations will continue and further finds should shed light on the 5th and 6th dynasties of the Old Kingdom, which ruled more than 4,000 years ago.


One of the tombs is about a meter wide and 2.5 meters long with a description above the entrance about the man, Iya Maat, for whom it was built. Iya Maat organized the acquisition of granite and limestone from Aswan and other materials from the Western Desert.


The second tomb is twice as big and includes inscriptions and an image of seated woman.


It once housed the remains of Thanah, who was in charge of singers in the court of Unas.


Both tombs feature hieroglyphics at their entrances but the contents of the tombs have long since been stolen, Hawass said. The entrance of Thanah's tomb shows carved images of her smelling lotus flowers.


Aidan Dodson, a research fellow at the University of Bristol's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology in Bristol, England, who was not involved in the dig, said that while the tombs themselves aren't especially significant, the possibility of a much larger cemetery would be.


"It shows that the blank areas of the maps of Saqqara aren't really empty at all," he said. "It's just that archaeologists haven't got round to digging them."


Excavations have been going on at Saqqara for about 150 years, uncovering a vast necropolis of pyramids, tombs and funerary complexes mostly from the Old Kingdom, but also including sites as recent as the Roman era.


But despite the decades of excavation, new finds are constantly being made. Last November, Hawass announced the discovery of a new pyramid at the site, the 118th in Egypt, and the 12th to be found just in Saqqara.


According to Hawass only 30 percent of Egypt's monuments have been uncovered, with the rest still under the sand.


Hawass also said that a bust of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, which has been outside the country for about 15 years, was returned to Egypt in late December after a lengthy legal battle with an antiquities dealer in Britain.


Hawass said Egypt and the dealer were eventually able to resolve the question of the bust's ownership out of court without Egypt having to pay the dealer any money.


Egypt has been actively trying to recover artifacts stolen or looted over the years. The bust is one of about 5,000 pieces retrieved by Egypt since 2002. Hawass said he also expects the return of four statues from Sweden in the next two weeks.


The bust is one of the great statues of Amenhotep III, the ninth pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, who ruled for almost 40 years during the 14th century BC, and is considered one of the most important rulers of ancient Egypt, said Hawass.


Amenhotep was the father of Akhenaten, who attempted to make Egyptian worship a single god, the sun, making him one of the first known proponents of monotheism.


The death of Unas brought to an end the 5th Dynasty, as he did not have a male heir. His daughter is widely believed to have become a queen to the first king of the 6th Dynasty.


The 6th Dynasty, a time of conflict in Egypt's royal family and erosion of centralized power, is considered to be the last dynasty of the Old Kingdom (2,613-2,494 BC), after which Egypt descended into famine and social upheaval.

Source: The Daily Star

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