A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In May 1996, as I was clearing dirt from the skeleton of a workman who had helped build Khufu's Pyramid, my assistant, Mansour Buraik, hurried over to me in a state of great agitation. Something important had just been found at Bahareya Oasis, 230 miles southwest of Giza. "Ashry Shaker, Chief Inspector of Bahareya, is here and wants to see you," he announced. I quickly dusted myself off and went to speak to the inspector. What he told me was truly amazing. An antiquities guard had been riding his donkey along the road leading to the town of Farafra, three and one-half miles south of Bawiti, capital of Bahareya, when the animal tripped, its leg slipping into a tomb. When the guard peered inside he saw numerous mummies covered in gilt. Delighted by the find, I told Ashry to begin excavating the tomb immediately, that I would join him the following week.
When I arrived at the site, at the heart of one of Egypt's premier wine-producing regions in antiquity, I could not believe that such beautiful specimens existed. The eyes of some gazed at me as if they were alive. Other mummies, wrapped in plain linen, reminded me of those depicted by Hollywood filmmakers. Fearing the site would be looted, we kept its discovery under wraps until we could implement a plan for its complete excavation and conservation.
I returned to the site this past March with a team of archaeologists, architects, restorers, conservators, artists, draftsmen, electricians, and laborers. Working daily from 6:30 A.M. to sunset over the course of a month we excavated four multichambered rock-cut tombs containing 105 mummies. Most of them were covered in gilt and sumptuously painted with religious scenes, making them among the finest ever found in Egypt.
I began work on the first tomb, which, like the others, was filled with the mummies of men, women, and children. All of them appeared to be in good condition, mummified in a Roman-Egyptian manner known from sites such as Hawara in the Fayum, 150 miles to the northeast. The mummies still smelled of the resin used to embalm them millennia ago. In one corner, I saw a touching scene--a woman lying beside her husband, her head turned affectionately toward him. My eyes were then drawn to the mummy of another woman, the sun glinting off her gilded mask. About five feet in height, she had a beautiful gilded plaster crown with four decorative rows of red curls ending in spirals that framed her forehead and extended behind her ears. While the hairstyle was clearly Roman, reminiscent of terra-cotta statues of the period, the iconography of her mask, painted with deities that protected the deceased and eased her passage into the afterlife, was pure Egyptian. Behind the ears a figure of Isis appeared on one side, her sister Nephthys on the other, the two goddesses shielding the deceased with their wings. The decoration on the front of the mask, which extended over the chest and had two circular disks representing breasts, was divided into three equal sections bearing Egyptian motifs, including images of cobras bearing sun disks; the four children of Horus; Anubis, god of embalming; a box or coffin from which appears a head with two wings that may represent the soul of the deceased during rebirth; and an ox.
As the excavation of the first tomb neared completion its architectural style became clear. Cut into sandstone bedrock was an entrance area and a "room of handing-over," where the mummy would have been transferred from the world of the living to that of the dead. Two interior burial chambers were carved from the sandstone. Each of these was divided into two sections full of mummies, 43 in all, laid on stone shelves.
I joined my assistant, Mahmoud Afifi, in the excavation of tomb 2 and together we started cleaning some of its mummies. As I brushed the sand from one, I noted that it was a man. He was wrapped in linen with a mask of cartonnage, plaster-coated pasteboard, covered with gilt. The face was long and seemed to be that of a 50-year-old male. The crown, with a fillet across the forehead, was painted blue, dark red, and turquoise. On the right and left sides of the crown were scenes of plants and also images of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, again guarding the deceased with their wings. The front of the mask, divided in three vertical sections, was molded in relief, the center section set off from the others by an intricate design executed in the same colors as the crown.
The center portion was divided into three horizontal registers--the top depicting a winged human figure that could represent the ba (soul) of the deceased or the sky goddess Nut; the middle, two children of Horus, Imesty and Dewa-Mautef; and the bottom, a seated bird figure that may represent the ka (the deceased's spiritual double) leaving the body. Two flanking sections were divided into four horizontal registers--the top showing one of Horus' children, Hapy, with the goddess Nephthys; the second, an image of Imesty; the third, images of Hapy and Imesty as standing figures; the fourth a recumbent Anubis holding the key to the cemetery.
Tomb 2, while architecturally similar to the first tomb, had images of Anubis on both the left and right sides of its entrance. This is the only tomb I have seen guarded by the black figure of the god of embalming.
Aside from mummies, tomb 3 contained three terra-cotta sarcophagi in the shape of a human body, one of which bore the face of the deceased painted on its surface. Tomb 4 differed from the others in that it consisted of a series of catacomb-like rooms--one chamber above another. It was in this tomb that we found the mummified remains of a child covered in gold. We also recovered numerous artifacts, including statues of women in mourning, their hands raised in a gesture of grief. We also found earrings, necklaces with amulets, a variety of pottery vessels from food trays to wine jars, and coins, the most fascinating of which bears an image of Cleopatra VII.
The prosperity of the ancient inhabitants of Bahareya is evident in the richness of the mummies' gilding and their associated burial goods. Egypt's population during Roman times was about seven million. I would estimate the population in Bahareya at that time at roughly 30,000 people, most of whom were Romanized Egyptians involved in the production of wine made from dates and grapes and exported throughout the Nile Valley. Today the population of the oasis is about 450,000.
It is also clear from this discovery that pharaonic funerary traditions were practiced well into the second century A.D. The method of mummification, however, differed considerably from that practiced in the New Kingdom. Rather than lavishing considerable time on preparing the body itself, efforts were focused on the exterior appearance of the mummy, which was reinforced with sticks or reeds and coated with large quantities of resin. Considerable care was also taken in applying the linen wrappings in decorative diamond patterns.
While the mummies date to the first and second centuries A.D., we believe people began burying their dead here shortly after the city's founding following the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. Aside from the newfound tombs, little remains of the ancient city, save for what may be a Hellenistic temple a half-mile from our site.
On the morning of my departure from Bahareya we transferred five mummies to a room within the inspectorate of antiquities at Bawiti so that visitors to the oasis could see the best looking of the mummies without having to disturb the archaeological site. Another mummy, that of a male wrapped only in linen, was taken to a lab in Cairo for study. His X-rays show that he had died at about the age of 35, but reveal no sign of injury or disease.
Our work on the tombs is far from complete. We will resume excavations this November. Given that we have revealed only six percent of the cemetery, which is spread over more than two square miles, we expect to be working at Bahareya for more than a decade, possibly longer.
Zahi Hawass is Undersecretary of State for the Giza Monuments and project director for the Bahareya Oasis excavation. Philippe Plailly is a Paris-based photographer with a special interest in archaeology.