A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Royal riches discovered during World War II rival those of Tutankhamun, but remain virtually unknown.
Millions of Americans were dazzled when the treasures of Tutankhamun toured the country in the 1970s. Now, as preparations are being made for a new exhibition, a new generation is eagerly awaiting a chance to see the boy king's royal paraphernalia. But there is another royal Egyptian treasure, from the ancient city of Tanis, in the Nile Delta northeast of Cairo, that in many ways is more spectacular yet remains virtually unknown to the general public.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, an entire complex of royal tombs was found intact at Tanis, yielding four gold masks, solid silver coffins, and spectacular jewelry, some even once worn by a pharaoh mentioned in the Bible. The treasures are one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time. But because it was discovered during World War II, and published only in French, it went unnoticed. Even today, visitors to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo gather around Tutankhamun's gold mask and gawk, but walk right past the room in which the treasures of Tanis are displayed. And while everyone knows Howard Carter's name, that of the excavator of Tanis is Egyptological trivia. It's Pierre Montet.
In 1939, Montet's eleventh year of excavations at Tanis, he literally struck gold. On February 27, he found the tomb of a king, identified by inscriptions as Osorkon II. There were several rooms, but all had been plundered. Still remaining, however, was a fabulous quartzite sarcophagus for Osorkon's son, Takelot II; hundreds of ushabtis (figurines of servants that would magically come to life and serve the pharaoh in the next world); alabaster jars; and other objects. It was a great discovery for Montet, but it was a difficult time for the world. As he was removing the artifacts from the tomb, Hitler was seizing Czechoslovakia.
When the tomb was cleared, Montet discovered another, adjoining tomb, but this one was undisturbed. The wall inscriptions mentioned Psusennes I, and lying on the floor was a solid silver coffin with a falcon's head. Three days later, on March 21, Egypt's King Farouk arrived for the opening of the coffin. He was rewarded by seeing a gold face mask and beautiful gold jewelry. But there were even greater surprises. This was clearly a king, but the inscriptions showed that it was not Psusennes but instead a previously unknown king, Sheshonq II. With silver coffins and jewelry rivaling Tutankhamun's, these northern kings were obviously a force to be reckoned with, and were not weak rulers who were barely hanging on to what little power they had.
Montet had found the intact burial of the pharaoh Sheshonq II, but the inscriptions on the wall said the tomb was built for Psusennes. Where was he? In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. France and England responded by declaring war, but Montet continued to excavate. Once the Sheshonq burial was cleared, Montet pressed further into the tomb complex, discovering several plundered chambers. Finally, on February 15, 1940, he came to a corridor sealed by a single huge granite plug made from a section of an obelisk of Rameses II--more recycling. For six days, Montet's workmen chipped away at the block, and finally, like Carter gazing into Tutankhamun's tomb, Montet peered into the room. He could see gold and silver bowls and cups, ushabtis, and the intact pink granite sarcophagus of Psusennes. The king's face was covered with a spectacular gold mask and on his body was jewelry equal to Tutankhamun's.
Today, as Tutankhamun once again begins a royal procession through the United States, it is good to remember Tanis and its discoverer, Pierre Montet. The treasure of Tutankhamun may be more extensive, but Montet found three intact royal burials, an achievement that will never be equaled. And when it comes to gold and jewelry, the treasures of Tanis can hold their own with even Tutankhamun's jewels.
Bob Brier is Senior Research Fellow at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.