The Valley of the Golden Mummies
Background information on the discovery
The discovery of a 2-square-mile tomb-filled cemetery (the area is now referred to as the Valley of the Golden Mummies) holding perhaps up to 10,000 mummies near Bawiti, a town in the Bahariya Oasis about 230 miles southwest of Cairo, was announced in June 1999. So far archaeologists have uncovered 105 mummies (about 6 percent of the total cemetery, they estimate). The cemetery is not filled with graves but with 106 tombs, carved from sandstone below the desert surface.
Archaeologists discovered the cemetery about six years ago when a donkey sank through the sand and stuck one of its legs through the roof of one of the tombs (the tomb's stone ceiling had collapsed, as had others, leaving slight depressions in the sand). The chunks of ruined ceiling had to be cleared, though, before a tomb could be excavated.
Dating from the Roman period (from about 322 B.C. to 300 A.D.), the cemetery contains the remains of many wealthy people and even some rulers. But ordinary people are also buried there. All of the mummies seem to be buried in family groups (at least by judging from the discoveries in the first four tombs). During the Roman period, Bahariya had a population of about 30,000 people who were Romanized Egyptians; the area was a source of wine production then (from dates and grapes). Today the Bahariya Oasis has a population of almost half a million people.
Although newspapers initially reported that plans were under way to open at least a few of the four excavated tombs to the public, Zahi Hawass, the director of antiquities at the Giza pyramids, countered that idea originally when he said, "The mummies will stay at the site and will not be shown to the public in order to preserve them as much as possible. They will be available only to experts studying the necropolis [that is, the cemetery]." Recent reports, however, reflect that the Egyptian authorities have changed their minds (see above).
What's special about the discovery
The Valley of the Golden Mummies contains the largest collection of Egyptian mummies ever found (in one place). So far, the tombs have been completely intact (no graverobbers here). Therefore, it must be one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Egypt's (and the world's) history.
Here is a summary of the most important findings:
- Researchers believe that the cemetery is the largest mummy-filled (and un-robbed) cemetery in the world (considering that millions of mummies were buried in Egypt over the course of 3,000+ years, this says something).
- Four general types of mummies have been found there.
1. Mummies with golden masks. Sixty of the 105 mummies studied so far fall into this category of wealthy individuals.
2. Mummies covered with head-to-waist cartonnage. The cartonnage was then painted with scenes involving different gods (such as Thoth, Osiris, and Isis)
3. Undecorated mummies placed in human-shaped terra cotta coffins.
4. Linen-wrapped mummies.
- The decorations covering the first two types of mummies are stunning. Each of them (Category 1 and 2) studied so far is distinctively decorated and/or painted; no two are alike. Many of the children's mummies are covered in a thin layer of gold. Many of the mummies also hold a coin in their hands.
- The typical floor plan of a tomb has been described in more detail. Each was entered though a hallway, perhaps up to 8-feet long, to a "handing-over" room where the mummy would be taken from the living world to the world of the dead. Beyond that was a burial chamber or two (sometimes two-stories, sometimes just one). However, at least one tomb that is more like a catacomb (a series of burial chambers) has been found.
- The amount of time needed to complete the excavation: about ten more years. (You still have time to become an Egyptologist and get involved with this project!)