Egyptian mummy trove yields more knowledge

Monday, September 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Alexandra Witze / The Dallas Morning News

Egypt's Bahariya Oasis is a lovely place, but many of its residents can't enjoy its beauty. They're dead.

Lush trees and fertile land mark the oasis, an emerald patch in the harsh desert 260 miles southwest of Cairo. Beneath its green surface lie hundreds of ancient mummies, many encased in gilded coffins. Thousands more may still await discovery, says Dr. Zahi Hawass, the archaeologist in charge of excavations.

A second year of digging at Bahariya Oasis – nicknamed the Valley of the Golden Mummies – has revealed unexpected finds, Dr. Hawass reported this month in Dallas. One of the most stunning is a wooden panel, painted with vivid scenes of a woman preparing for her resurrection.

"It's a beautiful motif, and we've never found anything like it before," Dr. Hawass said during an Egyptology symposium at the Hotel Inter-Continental.

The panel lay at the feet of a female mummy – clearly a woman of power and influence who was looking forward to her new life, he reported.

The 2000 excavation season also uncovered 101 other mummies, adding to the 105 discovered last year. Dr. Hawass said he expected as many as 10,000 mummies might be buried under the oasis.

"Major, important discoveries are going to start at Bahariya," he said.

The tombs are not open to the public, although the Egyptian government plans to build a small museum in the oasis. For now, the research team is emphasizing conservation, by cleaning the golden mummies carefully and leaving them in place.

This year, the team dug at three sites around the oasis. In one area, they found 41 mummies in a single tomb, tucked in wall niches like shoes in a shoe rack. In another, the archaeologists unearthed the body of the man who once ruled Bahariya as governor.

Other unexpected discoveries included a mummified 8-year-old girl buried next to a set of wine jars; carved obsidian eyes, perhaps needed by the tomb's occupants to see in the afterlife; a stone board game, possibly for later amusement; and a tomb in the shape of a cross, perhaps built during the early days of Christianity, Dr. Hawass said.

Most of the Bahariya discoveries come from two time periods: the 26th dynasty of Egypt, dating just before 500 B.C., and the Roman period beginning around 30 B.C.

Many of the mummies at Bahariya are female. Women in ancient Egypt – at least, the well-off ones – enjoyed relatively high social status, Dr. Hawass said. For instance, the wooden resurrection panel displayed symbols of power such as cobras.

Beneath another area of the oasis, the team discovered the archaeological equivalent of Lincoln's tomb. Hieroglyphics on the walls of a buried chamber indicate that the tomb belonged to a powerful man – the political equivalent of the region's governor, Dr. Hawass said.

But on entering the tomb, the explorers almost choked. Someone had scattered a foul-smelling yellow powder around the coffin, perhaps to discourage grave robbers.

Workers had to clear the powder, allowing the scientists to finally enter the tomb.

They stayed for six hours, absorbing the wonder of the pristine site.

"It was the most important and beautiful experience I have had in my career," said Dr. Hawass – no small statement for the Egyptian undersecretary of state who also oversees excavations at the great pyramids of Giza.

The governor's outer coffin hid an alabaster inner coffin, its face carved as a human's. Inside that, a disintegrated wooden coffin held the man's mummified body.

Scattered nearby were beads, gold amulets and scarabs, and many other offerings.

Even more treasures await discovery at Bahariya, Dr. Hawass said.

"This tomb is really the beginning," he said. Inscriptions on the tomb's walls tell the story of the governor's mother, father and brother; their tombs may lie nearby, he suggested.

The 2001 excavations will begin next spring.