The Valley of the Golden Mummies by Dr Zahi Hawass

Discovering the Valley of the Golden Mummies

By Dr. Zahi Hawass

The discovery of more than one hundred Greaco-Roman mummies in Bahariya Oasis has swept the media worldwide with a force not seen since the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The Valley of the Golden Mummies at Bahariya Oasis is the final resting-place for what is estimated to be thousands of the most beautiful and remarkably well-preserved mummies ever found in Egypt. The excavation has only just begun, but 105 mummies have already been uncovered. The mummies found exhibit a variety of shapes and styles, some of which are lavishly gilded from head to chest with an extravagance reminiscent of King Tut’s burial.

We announced our discovery in the beginning of June, and I found the media to be incredibly excited by the news. Reporters who came to investigate our findings were eager to record every detail of the mummies and both National Geographic TV and magazine came to Bahariya Oasis and stayed with me during the excavation season. Lisa Truit, producer of National Geographic TV, along with three of her staff members, documented the story day by day. Mark Linz, Director of the American University in Cairo Press visited the site and said, “The mummy site is very impressive and unique.” He still sees the Mummies in his dreams. Mark Linz loves Bahariya. One night we were standing in the courtyard of El- Beshmo Hotel and Linz said “Zahi, I feel that this discovery will be as important as King Tut.” Also, Victoria Owen, Ambassador of Australia, came to visit our excavations and entered the tomb that contained 43 mummies. She said, “Bahariya Oasis will be crowded this winter, tourists from all over the world will arrive to witness the magic and mystery of the mummies.”

The story of our discovery begins back in 1996 when an Antiquities guard of the Temple of Alexander the Great was crossing the desert on his donkey. Suddenly the leg of the donkey buckled and it fell. There was a small hole in the desert floor where the donkey had fallen. The guard left his donkey in the area and ran to Mr. Ashry Shaker to report the incident.

Shaker and his colleagues visited me at the Department of Antiquities at the Giza pyramids to report this unusual find. I instructed him to appoint an Inspector to excavate that hole and report the result to me. Mohamed el-Taib and Mohamed Aiad, Inspectors of Antiquities, began the excavation and soon discovered a tomb full of mummies.

The Inspectors were unable to conserve the mummies on their own, and we made the decision to launch a full-scale joint excavation and conservation of the site. I selected a team of twelve young members including archaeologists, architects, engineers, conservators, restorators, a draftswoman, a pottery analyst, and a photographer, and on a sunny march afternoon we packed our bags and headed west to the oasis.

I kept my eyes shut all the way to Bahariya, about 225 miles away from Cairo. I could not believe that I was leaving the shadow of the Great Pyramids for a completely new and isolated site out in the middle of nowhere. Bahariya really is a world away from the bustling pyramids that swarm with tourists, horses, and camels.

As we turned onto the oasis road, it occurred to me that many major discoveries in Egypt have occurred entirely accidentally, just as in the case of our Valley of the Golden Mummies. For example, a stumbling horse played a significant role in Carter’s excavation of the Valley of the Kings in 1899, before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. When Carter was returning to his rest house on the West Bank at the end of the day, his horse fell and exposed a shaft in the ground. Upon investigating the shaft, Carter found a sealed chamber that contained an empty coffin bearing no inscribed name; this chamber is known today as the Tomb of Bab el Hosan, “The Tomb of the Door of the Horse.”

Inside the tomb, Carter found a statue wrapped in a linen shroud, resting beside the coffin. It is presumed to be a statue of Mentuhotep, the first king of Dynasty II. The king is shown wearing the red crown of the Delta and a short skirt with an Osirid-shape. The function of this statue remains unexplained by Egyptologists, but it is now on display at the Cairo Museum.

Around the same time, a second major discovery was made by a similar accident in Alexandria. In 1900, the site of Kom El-Shokafa was used as a quarry. One day as Ahmed Kasbara was riding his donkey, the leg of the animal fell into a hole in the desert floor. The incident revealed a labyrinth of underground tunnels that later came to be known as the Catacombs of Kom El-Shokafa.

A horse has also led the way to one of my most significant discoveries. This occurred in August 1990. An American woman was riding a horse southeast of the Sphinx when her horse stumbled to the ground after hitting its leg against a small mud-brick structure. That structure turned out to be the first of a huge series of tombs of the pyramid builders. Although excavation of this site has only just begun, it is estimated to be one of the largest ancient Egyptian cemeteries ever found. I had been searching for this very same cemetery only months earlier but had closed our original excavation due to a lack of decisive findings. Ironically, the horse discovered the first tomb in this cemetery only 9 meters from my original excavation location.

Of course, the most recent discovery made by a donkey was the amazing Valley of the Golden Mummies at Bahariaya Oasis. Bahariya is among the most beautiful oases of Egypt. It falls under the Giza governorate, and therefore it is within the jurisdiction of the Giza Department of Antiquities.

This coming November, the Antiquities Department will open a number of major sites in Bahariya Oasis to the public, such as the tomb of Amenhotep-hwy, the mayor of Bahariya Oasis during the 19th Dynasty. We will also open two other tombs from the 26th Dynasty, the tombs of Banentiu, a wealthy merchant, and that of his father, Zed-Amon-Iuf-Ankh. Another major site to be opened is the temple of Ain El-Moftella, built by the mayor of the oasis in the 26th Dynasty during the reigns of kings Apris and Amasis (Ahmose II). The temple consists of chapels decorated with scenes of kings presenting offerings to the gods. Finally, the lovely temple of Alexander the Great will also be opened to the public.

The site of Bahariya Oasis is located in kilometer No.6 on the road to Farafra Oasis. During the excavation, we worked on digging every day from 6am to 2pm. After the day’s digging, we recorded and photographed the artifacts that had been previously found at the oasis.

On the first three days of the excavation, as I was performing the survey, I explored the entire area surrounding the place where the donkey had fallen. This area began at the paved road to the south of the site and extended all the way to the Temple of Alexander the Great to the north. I collected pottery sherds and bones along the way, and we made sondages in the west and east to discern the boundaries of the site. I estimate that the site is about 6 square kilometers in size and should contain in total of around 10, 000 mummies. Never before have such a number of mummies been found in a single site anywhere in Egypt.

Mummies conjure up so many images in people’s minds. Most people are first introduced to mummies in scary movies. They inspire a sense of terror and awe connected with the world beyond our own, but they also have brought the thrill of Egypt-mania to popular culture. I must confess that I also feel this thrill, but I don’t identify with the frightening aspects of mummies. To me, Egyptology is a science, and this remarkable find of mummies provides us with an outstanding opportunity to learn so much more about this civilization of another place and time.

This excavation revived the adventurous spirit of archaeology inside all of us who worked at Bahariya, because we were not merely uncovering the objects used by people or the tombs they were buried in, we were uncovering the very people who made them.

An important key to understanding the site was exploring its relationship to the Temple of Alexander the Great. This temple was built in 332 BC, when Alexander the Great came to Egypt. Initially, he traveled from Memphis northward to establish the new city of Alexandria. Later he made a long journey to visit Siwa and to meet his father, the god Amun, whose temple was built in this area. I believe that Alexander the Great traveled two different routes on these two journeys and on his journey to Memphis he passed through Bahariya Oasis. This is one major reason that a temple dedicated to Alexander the Great was constructed at Bahariaya Oasis. This temple is unique because it is the only one in Egypt that was built for a living pharaoh. After Alexander the Great left Bahariya, he stayed for one month in Memphis, ruling the country as pharaoh.

I believe that, in Graeco-Roman times, people chose the area as their burial place because of its proximity to the Temple of Alexander the Great. It appears that the cemetery was in use until the 4th century AD. The temple was excavated by the late Egyptian Egyptologist Ahmed Fakhry, who dedicated part of his life to excavating and exploring sites in various Egyptian oases such as Bahariya, Siwa, Farafra, Kharga, and Dakhla.

Alexander’s temple consists of two chambers built of sandstone, a common construction material in Bahariya. An enclosure wall surrounds the temple, and behind it the priests built their homes. To the east of the temple, the administrator of the temple constructed his home, and in front of the temple were built forty-five storerooms of mud-brick. The temple’s entrance and stone gateway opens to the south, and a granite altar about 1.09m in height was erected to the south of the entrance. The altar, inscribed with the name of Alexander the Great, has been removed and placed in the Cairo Museum.

Fakhry found a small statue of the priest of Re, among many other artifacts in the mud-brick storerooms, during his 1938-1942 excavation of the temple. Examination of these objects led the excavator to believe that the temple was in use from the time of Alexander the Great until the 12th century AD. Many pieces of broken pottery decorated with human figures and geometrical designs were uncovered. A number of pottery sherds inscribed with the Greek and Coptic languages, known as ostraca, were also found. One of the ostraca was inscribed with Syric and has been dated to the 5th century AD. Other artifacts, such as lamps and pottery vases, were also found.

The inner sanctuary of the temple is beautifully decorated with scenes of Alexander the Great presenting offerings to his father, Amun, and of Alexander the Great, accompanied by the mayor of Bahariya Oasis, presenting offerings to the god Amun. The cartouche of Alexander the Great was once inscribed in the sanctuary walls, but no trace of it remains.

Our excavation of the Valley of the Golden Mummies was rigorously scheduled. We spent our first two days surveying and photographing the site, while Abdou El-Hamied Kotb, architect of the Giza plateau, composed a grid that divided the entire site into 10m by 10m squares with ropes. Within the first four squares we excavated, we found four separate tombs. Excavation of the first square was directed by Mansour Boraik, the second square was directed by Mahmoud Afifi, the third square by Tarek El-Awadi, and the fourth square by Aiman Wahbi. Each square was also assigned two conservators. Nasry Iskender, known in the field of conservation for his work with the royal mummies in Cairo Museum, and Mostafa Abdou El-Kader, Director of Conservation and Restoration at Giza, supervised the conservation of the mummies. Noha Abdou El-Hafiz, a woman with golden hands, drafted the plans of the squares and sketches of the scenes on the cartonage covering the mummies’ chests. Also, the electrical engineer, Mahmoud Helmy, prepared generators for the lighting of the tomb interiors. Three tents were set at the site, one of them as an office for the administration of the excavation. I supervised the digging in each square.

As the first tomb was opened, the brilliance of gold shone in the sunlight among the piles of sand. Soon I was able to discern the figure of the mummy of a woman, about 1.55m in height. Her mask and waistcoat were coated with gold, the decoration of this waistcoat being divided into three equal sections marked by two circular disks representing breasts.

Mansour was working, cleaning the mummies of tomb 54, when he said to me, “I never imagined that one tomb could contain so many mummies.” The restorators used brushes and other cleaning equipment to clean the sand from the chests of the mummies, and it took two weeks to clean all of them. The ceiling of the tomb had been destroyed and the sun shone down, reflecting the gold of the mummies’ cartonage and masks onto our faces as we worked.

Each mummy was as distinctive as the individual it represented, and no two were alike. Some mummies were decorated with painted scenes on plain cartonage; others were covered in gold. There were mummies of old men, their wives, and young children, lying side by side. The one unifying characteristic of these mummies was that they were all smiling. As I walked through the tomb, there were dozens of mummies to my left and dozens more to my right.

Glancing in a corner, I noticed a particularly touching pair; a woman lying beside her husband with her head lovingly turned towards him. It seems that the husband had died before the wife, and she had asked her family to bury her next to him, where she could gaze at him forever. Looking to the left, I saw a man with stones placed beneath his head. I also noticed families with children laid to rest beside their parents. What could have happened to these families? Did they die together in an accident? These are questions that will never be answered.

Each of the four tombs we unearthed had a distinctive architectural style. Tomb 54 is cut into the sandstone and is composed of an entrance hall, a delivery room, and two burial chambers. The entrance is located to the northeast of the tomb. Its width is about 1.25m and its length is about 2.5m. The entrance extends southward through a corridor with a depth of 1.9m, containing eight steps carved into the sandstone.

The delivery room had a ritual function. Relatives of the deceased placed the mummy in the so-called delivery room, and two people stood on each side of the mummy in order to deliver the mummy to one person waiting inside the burial chamber. The tomb’s door of wood opened into this delivery room and, on the south side of the room, an opening .80m wide leads to the burial chambers.

The first burial chamber can be entered from the delivery room, with three steps cut into the rock. The last step is carved in a semi-circular shape. This chamber is the largest part of the tomb and is comprised of four rooms cut from the sandstone. Two rooms are located on the western side, and two are on the eastern side. All four rooms were used for burials. The second burial chamber is distinguished by two niches in the east and west walls, with two other niches in the south wall. This second chamber is reached through an entrance with a width of 1.08m and a height of 1.35m.

The tomb that Aiman Wahby supervised also has a unique style. It reflects the shape of the catacombs of Kom El-Sokafa in Alexandria. A third style of architecture is seen in the tomb Tarek El-Awady supervised. It is a large shaft in the ground, with niches cut into its walls. The tomb that Mahmoud Afifi supervised also has a unique form with an entrance and a single, large room cut into the rock that is full of mummies.

There are four general styles among the mummies we found at Bahariaya. The first type of mummy has a gilded mask covering the face and a gilded waistcoat decorated with scenes of gods and goddesses covering the chest. About 60 mummies of this kind were found. The Valley of the Golden Mummies is named for this very special style of mummy.

The second style of mummy is covered with cartonage that depicts scenes of various gods like Anubis, god of mummification, and the four children of Horus. Also shown are Isis, Osiris, and Toth, who were in charge of judgement of the deceased’s soul.

The third type of mummy was not decorated with gold or cartonage, but was placed inside an anthropoid, or human-shaped, pottery coffin.

The final type of mummy was covered entirely with linen. This kind of mummy is unique and, in my opinion, the most interesting because they remind us of mummies of the New Kingdom.

When I visited the site directed by Mahmoud, I found a female mummy about 1.55m in length and .46m in width. The face and waistcoat are covered in gold, and the waistcoat is divided into three sections and displays two conical disks representing breasts. The mummy’s gilded covering is damaged on the face, neck, and breastplate.

In spite of the damage, the scenes etched into her waistcoat are still discernable. At the top of the center section is a box or coffin, out of which appears a head with two wings. This scene may represent the soul of the deceased during her rebirth in the afterworld. Five decorative circles define the base of this register. The second register shows the recumbent Anubis with a row of triangles beneath him. The lowest register is composed of two superimposed squares, one gold and the other light red, with a black ox painted in the center. The left side of the mummy first depicts three cobras bearing the sun-disk on their heads in the top register. A band of five circles divides this scene from the next two scenes that depict the four children of Horus. The decorative scenes on the left side of the mummy are again mirrored on the right side.

The woman’s crown is covered by four decorative rows of reddish curls. The third and fourth rows of curls are missing significant pieces. Beneath the crown, the hairstyle is similar to that of terracotta statues. Behind the ears appears the goddess Isis on one side and Nepthys on the other, protecting the deceased with their wings. The face is covered with plaster and thin layers of gold, and the facial features are well defined. This mummy was found near the mummy of a man, possibly her husband.

The headdress of another mummy displays rows of curls framing the forehead and extending behind the ear to both sides. A braid surrounds these curls. These features lead me to believe that this mummy is of a woman. It has been suggested that the decoration of mummies should be analyzed from bottom to top, just as scenes on temple walls are read. The scenes on the lower registers of the waistcoat depict two figures; the one on the left is of a man holding a standard with a jackal resting on top, signifying the god Wepwawat, and the one on the right is a man displaying the uraeus on his forehead and holding the symbol of royalty, signifying the god Horus. Between the two figures stands the god Toth, god of wisdom, in the form of an Ibis, wearing the double-crown with two horns.

The god Toth is also represented on the cartonage waistcoat of another mummy. Here, he is flanked by two figures of the god Anubis, guardian of the key to the underworld. The depiction of winged figures on the waistcoat could represent the deceased in “ka” form.

The decorative scenes also often show an abbreviated form of the Judgement of the Dead. In these scenes, we see the god Osiris on his throne while the god Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased against the feather of Maat. Toth looks on, records the results of the weighing process, and reports the results to Osiris. Anubis here plays an important role in several ways. He is most well known for the role of operating the scale on which the heart of the deceased is weighed, as indicated by his familiar epithet of “ib ibw”, or “reckoner of hearts.” His second role is performance of the embalming, a fundamental condition for rebirth. Thus, Anubis protects the body of the deceased and assists in its revival. For this reason, we find him represented on coffins and mummy masks performing mummification rites. Finally, he is guardian of the key to the netherworld.

Wepwawet is the herald and guide of souls to the netherworld, particularly during the New Kingdom. In judgment scenes from the Late Ptolemaic and Roman periods, he is often shown guiding the deceased into the presence of Osiris.

The presence of an uraeus on the foreheads of masks belonging to two non-royal persons probably indicates a desire of the deceased to have a kingly transfiguration in the afterlife. A similar desire is seen through scenes of royal baptism or coronation on the waistcoats of non-royal mummies. In the Roman period, other elements such as crowns, sematawy scenes, royal and divine beards, and the uraeus were taken from the cache of royal symbols and appropriated by the public.

The masks in the Egyptian Museum have been particularly important in our study. Likewise, the research of previous scholars has been essential to understanding the finds at Bahariya Oasis. For example, the German scholar, Grimm, provides the most comprehensive and fundamental discussion of dating artifacts. He classifies objects according to their pertinence to three groups: Lower, Middle, and Upper Egypt. Nonetheless, Grimm’s work does not provide accurate dates for the masks we encountered.

Throughout Ancient Egypt, masks were crafted from a variety of materials such as stucco, cartonage, and wood. The diversity of materials can be attributed to the diverse traditions of local workshops in cities across Egypt. Material alone is not a substantial criterion for dating. This is because, while masks from Upper Egypt (Thebes and Akhmim, for example) are primarily composed of cartonage, these mummies differ in both typology and style from the mummies of Middle and Lower Egypt which are generally made of stucco (particularly masks from Meir, Antiopolis, and Hermopolis).

Unlike the mummy portraits, the mummy mask does not represent the image of an individual, but rather it is the result of series production. The masks are hardly the products of cheap, mass production, however, because they, like the mummification process, probably cost the deceased’s family a significant amount. These masks should be considered the treasures of wealthy and influential people.

The mummies were not all we found in the tombs; artifacts were abundant throughout the graves. Of particular interest were the statues of mourning women, their hands eternally raised upwards toward the sky in a posture of excruciating grief for the loss of their loved ones. We also found earrings, necklaces and amulets, and pottery with a variety of functions and styles from food trays to wine jugs. There were also many Ptolemaic coins, the most fascinating of which struck the image of Cleopatra VII, the famous ill-fated lover-queen of Alexandria.

At this point, I gave instructions for the cleaning of the mummies, for photographs to be taken, and for measures to be secured towards their conservation. I then moved to square No.2 where Mahmoud Afifi and I together began the cleaning of the chest cartonage, or gypsum covering, of some of the mummies.

I cleaned one mummy with a brush, I noted that it likely belonged to a man. The mummy is completely wrapped in linen, with a waistcoat covered in cartonage. Both the mask and waistcoat were coated with a fine patina of gold. The face of the mummy is long and seemed to be that of a fifty-year-old man. A fillet is placed across the forehead, decorated with a spectrum of colors, such as blue, dark red, and turquoise. The left and right sides of the crown are ornamented with scenes of plants and images of the goddesses Isis and Nepthys, who guard the deceased with their wings. After completing my work, I asked Afifi to continue with his excavation and to clean the other mummies inside this square.

The residents of the Valley of the Golden Mummies reveal much about the lives of citizens of Bahariaya Oasis during the Roman era. They also provide us with information about the art of mummification and the belief in an afterlife at that time. Evidently, Roman Bahariya was a substantially affluent community, given that many of its members could afford burial extravagantly ornamented with gold and cartonage.

I can visualize the style of embalming workshops in Bahariya. We know that Egypt’s population during Roman rule was about 7 million. Thus, I would estimate the population of Bahariaya during this period at roughly 30,000 people. Today, the population in the oasis is about 450,000, according to local authorities.

The main product of ancient Bahariaya was wine, made from dates and grapes. This wine was exported everywhere in the Nile valley, which, I believe, accounts for the wealth of residents of the oasis. We even excavated an ancient wine factory near the Valley of the Mummies. In ancient time, wine from Bahariya was exported throughout the Nile Valley. The god governing wine and pleasure within the Oasis was Bes, and during our excavation we discovered a large statue of the god Bes near the site of the mummies.

The god Bes was one of the most popular domestic deities of Ancient Egypt. He was generally represented as a squat figure with the ears and mane of a lion, and bow-legs. He was usually shown naked, except for a headdress of tall plumes, and he sometimes carried a drum, a tambourine, or a knife in the Graeco-Roman period.

Bahariya today is a very quiet place, where people take life easy and in peace. This was probably as true in Roman times as it is in our own.

The Bahariya discoveries demonstrate that mummification reached its peak during the Roman period, rather than declining as many have proposed. The most important point about the Roman approach to mummification at Bahariaya is that sticks made of reeds were placed on the right and left sides of the mummy before the body was wrapped in linen. This method made the mummy very strong and explains why more have survived from this period than from the Pharaonic era. Mohamed Goneim, First Under Secretary of the State for Culture Foreign affairs said, ” I have never seen any archaeological discovery get so much coverage like the Mummies in Bahariya. I hope that I can visit this site soon”.

On the morning of my departure from Bahariya, I made two important decisions. The first was to move 5 mummies (two women, a man, and two children) to a room within the Inspectorate of Antiquities at Bawiti. This allows visitors to see the best-looking mummies without having to disturb the tranquility of the tombs.

The second decision was to transport a mummy covered entirely in linen to the x-ray lab in Cairo. With the members of our dedicated team all gathered together, the workmen took down the tents which we had set up one month before. The conservator wrapped the mummy chosen for tests and placed it inside a wooden box. The workmen put the mummy in a truck bound for Giza.

Ashry Shaker asked me, “How will we identify this mummy?”

“We’ll call him Mr. or Mrs. X,” I replied.

The next day, I met with radiology expert Dr. Aza Sari El-Din at my office beside the Great Pyramid of Khufu. We went to the lab in a building on the Giza plateau and saw the mummy who had journeyed from Bahariaya. X-Rays revealed that it was the body of a man who had died at the age of 35, without sign of either disease or injury.

In a different way than before his trip, Mr. X is now immortal–in the annals of archaeology and science.

Our goal for the future is to continue our excavation for one season each year in order to unearth and preserve all residents of the Valley of the Golden Mummies. At the same time, we hope to continue our scientific research in the x-ray laboratories.

Julie Holmes, accounting consultant in Los Anglos, who visited Bahariya said “I believe that Bahariya Oasis will be the most famous site in Egypt.” I told Julie that when I arrived in Bahariya a man come to me and asked, ” Please, sir, mention our town in your talk on T.V. ”

Two months later, Bahariya become the most famous town in Egypt.

The year 2000, Bahariya will hit the limelight when the public opening of new sights in the area is announced. Among these sites are the Roman temple at Ain El-Moftella, the Temple of Alexander the Great, a tomb dated to Dynasty 19, and another tomb dated to Dynasty 26. We will not, however, put the mummies in the site on display because I do not believe that bodies of the deceased should be exposed to the public as a thrill. Instead, I hope to treat these bodies as respectfully as possible by preserving them within their final resting grounds.

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.