In 1996, an astonishing discovery was made in Egypt. Archaeologists uncovered a two-square-mile necropolis that contained a number of important tombs. Upon the first excavation, four of the tombs were found to contain 105 well-preserved mummies, many of them containing elaborate golden masks; hence the cemetery came to be known as ‘Valley of the Golden Mummies’. The initial discovery was believed to be just the tip of the iceberg, however, as it is thought that there may be up to 10,000 mummies lying within the cemetery.
The mummies were uncovered by Dr. Zahi Hawass and his team at Bahariya Oasis, located about 380 km west of the pyramids. A guard named Abdul Megoud had been chasing a donkey when the donkey’s leg fell through a hole in the ground. When Megoud peered through the hole he saw gold glittering in the distance. It was apparent that this was an important discovery, but the local antiquities inspectorate at the Bahariya Oasis did not have the resources to excavate the area. The director of the SCA office at Bahariya Oasis, Ashry Shaker, contacted Dr. Hawass to request that his team come in and take a look. Dr. Hawass was unable to leave his excavation site at Giza right away, so he requested that the antiquities inspectorate conduct the preliminary survey of the area. This preliminary survey led to the discovery of four tombs, and eventually, Dr. Hawass was on his way to conduct a full-scale excavation.
Dr. Hawass’ team uncovered 105 mummies within four tombs dating back to 332 BC. Each of those 105 mummies fell within one of four categories:
Mummies covered with cartonnage;
Mummies inside anthropoid coffins;
Mummies wrapped with linen.
The gilded mummies would have been the wealthiest inhabitants of the area, likely merchants and their families. This is evidenced by their mummies being adorned with gilded masks and chest plates, which most would not have been able to afford. The second type of mummy was found wrapped in linen with painted cartonnage covering their head and upper body. They had eyes painted on that were so lifelike that they unnerved some of the excavators. The third type of mummy was found in an anthropoid coffin, which is a coffin made of pottery and decorated with a human face. Finally, there were linen wrapped mummies, which were wrapped quite poorly compared to the others. These were likely to be members of the lower class of society.
In some instances, “families” were found laid to rest together, including what appeared to be mothers, fathers, and children. One female mummy was laid to rest with her head turned affectionately towards a male mummy, presumably her husband. Where masks and gilding were present, they were very elaborate, with religious drawings and depictions, in addition to the detailed faces. Along with the mummies, Dr. Hawass’ team uncovered many artifacts, including pottery, bracelets, earrings, and coins. The jewelry was composed of several materials, including silver, copper, bronze, faience, and ivory. There were clay statuettes depicting women as mothers, which most likely symbolizing fertility. There were also statues depicting mourners which were placed to “weep” for the deceased for eternity. The excavators also found small glass vessels, which were empty, but believed to have held “symbolic” tears that had been shed for the deceased. Unfortunately, the tombs did not contain any inscriptions, so it is impossible to tell who the mummies are.
Since the initial excavation, over 200 mummies have been found within the cemetery. Although the lack of inscriptions makes it difficult to determine the identity of each mummy, the discovery has revealed much about the Romanized Egyptian culture, and their burial practices in particular. The differences in mummification highlight the level of society from which each mummy came, and the details of the masks and gilding show that great care was paid to ensure a proper burial for the deceased. Had a donkey not fallen through the sand back in 1996, it is hard to say how long these mummies could have remained concealed beneath the ground. This brings forth a realization that when it comes to A̳n̳c̳i̳e̳n̳t̳ c̳i̳v̳i̳l̳i̳z̳a̳t̳i̳o̳n̳s̳, there is so much out there that we have not yet discovered, some of it perhaps right beneath the ground we walk on.