It’s November 2018, and in Egypt’s Assasseef valley, close to Luxor, archaeologists have made an incredible discovery. The team have uncovered two sarcophagi within the depths of a tomb that’s thought to be around 3,500 years old. And after opening these stone coffins, the researchers find something astonishing: impeccably preserved remains.
Thanks to the myriad archaeological wonders that have been found there, Luxor has been dubbed the “world’s greatest open-air museum.” This description is largely down to the fact that Luxor stands upon the ruins of the ancient Egyptian city once known as Waset – which was a place of no small importance.
You see, Waset – or Thebes, as it was referred to outside the kingdom – was once Egypt’s capital. The city was at the height of its prominence during the eras known as the Middle Kingdom – spanning roughly 2050 B.C. to 1710 B.C. – and the New Kingdom, which is thought to have lasted from around 1570 B.C. to 1069 B.C.
British historian Ian Morris has in fact claimed that Thebes was once the most populous city on Earth. He estimates that by around 1500 B.C., some 75,000 people lived there. Six-hundred or so years later, however, this population figure was overtaken by that of the Assyrian city of Nimrud – which can be found in modern-day Iraq – as well as others.
Nevertheless, Thebes was a prosperous place within ancient Egypt. Riches flowed through the city, and a number of remarkable religious monuments were erected there. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, a great deal of archaeological ruins and treasures have since been found in the area.
For example, the remnants of the Karnak and Luxor temple complexes still lie within present-day Luxor, with the former made up of a variety of structures that began to be built during the Middle Kingdom period. And Karnak and its surrounding area also served as an important religious location that was dedicated to the god Amun.
The Luxor temple complex, on the other hand, was not built in honor of any deity at all. Rather, it was constructed in dedication to the idea of reinvigorating the supremacy of rulers, and it is believed that a number of Egypt’s kings may have had their coronations there.
The Luxor temple complex is also thought to have been a pivotal site of the Beautiful Feast of Opet. This ancient Egyptian celebration was observed once a year in Thebes, and evidence shows that the notion of rebirth was prevalent throughout the festivities.
However, modern-day investigations of the Luxor temple complex have been complicated thanks to the populations who settled there after the ancient Egyptians. Inhabitants erected structures upon and around the temple over the years, and so debris began to pile up. Eventually, then, a man-made mound as much as 50 feet tall materialized, and this covered most of the temple.
But despite the challenges posed by the ancient heap of debris – not to mention newer structures built in the area over the years – excavations began in 1884. This archaeological work was initially led by one Professor Gaston Maspero, and it continued intermittently until 1960.
Today, the remains of the Luxor and Karnak temples are found within modern Luxor’s borders. But opposite the city – on the other side of the Nile – an entirely different treasure trove of ancient Egyptian structures and artifacts can be found in the area known as the Valley of the Kings.
For around half a millennium, starting in approximately 1500 B.C., the ancient Egyptians created tombs for their rulers in the Valley of the Kings. The area is actually split into two parts: the East Valley and the West Valley. And it is in the former that most of the tombs unearthed so far have been discovered.
The Valley of the Kings is, in fact, currently known to contain more than 60 separate burial sites. And each of these is adorned in artworks reflective of the eras in which they were created. Suitably, then, the valley was designated a World Heritage Site in 1979.
Given that the Valley of the Kings was the main site of royal burials during the New Kingdom era, the area has, unsurprisingly, been a serious focus for modern archaeological investigation. Accordingly, many famous discoveries have been made there – perhaps the most well known of these being the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Tutankhamun was a pharaoh of Egypt during the New Kingdom era, and a number of construction works took place under his rule. But in light of Tutankhamun’s young age – he was crowned when he was around nine or ten – it is presumed that he had influential figures helping to direct his decisions.
Perhaps as a result of such guidance, several structures were built at the Karnak Temple under Tutankhamun’s reign. Traditional Egyptian festivals that had previously been sidelined also reemerged during this period. And yet it is not for these reasons that Tutankhamun is so well known today.
The boy king in fact came to modern-day prominence after news hit that Howard Carter had located his tomb. The archaeologist’s years-long search for Tutankhamun’s final resting place finally bore fruit, you see, in 1922. And in the end, over 5,000 items were discovered in the tomb, including a gold coffin and a death mask of the pharaoh himself.
Tutankhamun’s face mask has, in fact, since become one of the most iconic symbols of ancient Egypt. Interest in the civilization was piqued after Carter’s monumental find. And that public fascination may very well have intensified when rumors spread of the so-called Tutankhamun’s curse.
The theory of there being a curse was seemingly sparked by the death of George Herbert – the man who funded the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Herbert passed away around five months after the tomb had been found, and his demise was subsequently attributed to the curse. And while the British aristocrat actually met his end thanks to an infected mosquito bite, this suggestion of retribution from beyond the grave entered the public consciousness. Other deaths have since been chalked up to Tutankhamun’s curse too.
Adding yet more intrigue is the fact that Tutankhamun’s tomb and its contents were in exceptional condition for their age. And, as a result, relics from the site have been extensively exhibited, further raising the long-dead pharaoh’s iconic profile across the planet.
That said, archaeologists in Egypt haven’t rested since Carter’s day, and new discoveries in the country continue to be recorded. Recently, in November 2018, for example, yet another significant find was unveiled. And by the end of that same month, the project had made headlines worldwide.
But what exactly had the archaeologists exposed? Well, in the Assasseef valley, near modern-day Luxor, two ancient sarcophagi were uncovered in a tomb. And while that find was important by itself, this wasn’t all that the team had managed to dig up. You see, roughly 1,000 funerary statues were also discovered at the site, with the relics later being revealed as part of a project linked to the University of Strasbourg in France.
The tomb within which the sarcophagi were found is located in a necropolis known as El-Assasif, which lies on the west bank of Thebes. And, apparently, just under 1,000 feet of debris had to be worked through to get to the vault – an endeavor that took close to half a year.
It was further revealed that the tomb itself had been dedicated to a figure known as Thaw-Irkhet-if, who is believed to have once supervised mummifications at a temple called Mut. And the ancient vault additionally contained around 1,000 miniature figurines known as ushabti – supposed servants for the dead – as well as five colored masks.
Besides the sarcophagi, a number of skeletons and skulls were also found in the tomb. And the vault itself is thought to be thousands of years old. It’s said that the burial chamber originates from the Middle Kingdom era – a time known for some of ancient Egypt’s most famous rulers, including Tutankhamun.
Of course, the sarcophagi themselves are also of great historical value. They were both found to be amazingly well preserved, too, meaning that they were in an ideal state for investigation. And as it turns out, each sarcophagus held something of no small significance.
“One sarcophagus was rishi-style, which dates back to the 17th dynasty, while the other sarcophagus was from the 18th dynasty,” Khaled Al Anani, Egypt’s minister of antiquities, said in a statement. “[And] the two tombs were present with their mummies inside.” For the record, the 17th dynasty existed from roughly 1580 B.C. to 1550 B.C., whereas the 18th dynasty spanned from approximately 1550 B.C. to 1292 B.C.
It may not come as a shock, either, to learn that the remains were mummified. After all, while mummification is a practice that existed in a number of bygone cultures, it is perhaps most closely associated with the ancient Egyptians. These people saw the process as pivotal to preparing individuals for the afterlife, and the act itself ultimately reflected a person’s social status.
Interestingly, there were a number of distinct ways to mummify a person’s body, some of which were more expensive than others. Hence, the wealthier members of Egyptian society were prepared for the afterlife in a different manner to the poor. And this class divide was also reflected in the manner in which the bodies were buried.
So how does this tie in with the mummies that were found in El-Assasif? Well, it seems that the preserved remains uncovered there belonged to members of the Egyptian elite. One of the sets of remains is thought to be that of a priest who was in fact responsible for overseeing the process of mummification; and the other set is believed to be that of his wife, Thuya.
There were, however, marked differences between the unveilings of the two mummies. You see, while the priest’s sarcophagus was opened behind closed doors, Thuya’s was brought to light in front of journalists. This is believed, in fact, to be the first time that a sarcophagus’s contents have ever been revealed before the eyes of the international press.
It is apparently also hoped that the discovery will generate more interest in Egypt as a destination. Certainly, tourism is pivotal to the country. In 2010, for example, around 12 percent of the population’s workers were employed in the sector. And at that time, tourism was in addition responsible for over 11 percent of Egypt’s GDP.
However, in 2010 the Arab Spring began – and insurrection subsequently spread across the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt, of course, was directly impacted by this, with the resulting revolution beginning in January 2011 and ultimately leading to more than 800 deaths.
Perhaps understandably, therefore, tourism took a significant blow in Egypt following the 2011 revolution. Indeed, visitor numbers fell by more than 37 percent between 2010 and 2011. And a comparable decline continued throughout the following years as well.
The Egyptian government, of course, noted the dramatic fall in tourism to the country, and so from 2014 it has sought to breathe fresh life back into the sector. Consequently, a number of state and private initiatives have been set up to encourage people to visit Egypt.
And as part of the Egyptian government’s attempts to attract interest in its country, there has been a push for media attention towards new archaeological discoveries made there. It’s worth noting, too, that the sarcophagi found in Thaw-Irkhet-if’s tomb weren’t the only artifacts to be uncovered in 2018.
Perhaps the strangest discovery came from Saqqara – a former necropolis situated in the onetime ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. Here, archaeologists found containers holding strange white matter. And after tests were carried out, experts confirmed that they believed the white substance is cheese.
“The sample was wrapped with a canvas into a broken jar,” Enrico Greco, from the University of Catania in Italy, explained to the press. “The archaeologists suspected it was a kind of food left for the owner of the tomb, and [so] they decided to ask for chemical analyses.”
Subsequently, the scientists identified the cheese as being around 3,200 years old – making it the oldest foodstuff of its kind ever recorded. And, shedding further light on the discovery, Dr. Greco revealed that the team believe the cheese was made mostly of milk from goats and sheep.
It seems, then, that intriguing discoveries continue to come out of Egypt – all helping to paint a picture of what life was once like there. And hopefully experts will be further incentivized to uncover archaeological gems like those found within the tomb of Thaw-Irkhet-if.