Science

Archaeologists hail ‘dream discovery’ as pink granite sarcophagus is unearthed near Cairo

The pink granite sarcophagus of a high-ranking Egyptian noble has been found in an ancient burial chamber near Cairo, where it has been lying for thousands of years.

It belonged to Ptah-em-wia, who served as head of the treasury under Ramses the Great, and has been described by archaeologists as a ‘dream discovery’.

Inscribed on all sides with emblems, hiéroglyphs and titles, the up to 3,300-year-old stone coffin was found in pristine condition and in its original tomb 23 feet underground.

Professor Ola El Aguizy, who discovered the sarcophagus in Saqqara, hopes the finding will shed light on those who ruled Egypt after Tutankhamun.

The Cairo University archaeologist said: ‘The hiéroglyphs on the sarcophagus certify that it is Ptah-em-wia and also the titles mentioned on the sarcophagus are the same as those found on the walls of the tomb itself. 

‘It only emphasises that he is a nobleman and quite close to the king, because his titles related to the temple of millions of years in Thebes prove that he had a very important role in the administration of that time. 

‘He could be equalled to the Minister of finance nowadays.’

The pink granite sarcophagus of Ptah-em-wia, a high-ranking Egyptian noblem has been found in an ancient burial chamber near Cairo, where it has been lying for thousands of years

Professor Ola El Aguizy (pictured), who discovered the sarcophagus in Saqqara, hopes the finding will shed light on those who ruled Egypt after Tutankhamun

Professor Ola El Aguizy (pictured), who discovered the sarcophagus in Saqqara, hopes the finding will shed light on those who ruled Egypt after Tutankhamun

Professor El Aguizy and her team descended into the burial chamber by sitting in a large metal bucket that had to be winched up and down by hand

Professor El Aguizy and her team descended into the burial chamber by sitting in a large metal bucket that had to be winched up and down by hand

The sarcophagus was unveiled in the fourth series of Lost Treasures of Egypt, which premiered on National Geographic on Sunday.

Its surface-level tomb was discovered by Professor El Aguizy last season, but she was not able to descend into the underground chamber until this year.

The archaeologists had to move several tons of sand to create a shaft they could use to reach the first level of the tomb, which is located near the pyramid of King Unas.

There they found a 3,000-year-old stone masonry, which had to be reinforced before they could safely descend any further.

It had a small hollow in the floor hiding a second shaft, which the team descended by sitting in a large metal bucket that had to be winched up and down by hand. 

This second underground level was the burial chamber, and was where the sarcophagus was lying.

The archaeologists had to move several tons of sand to create a shaft they could use to reach the first level of the tomb

The archaeologists had to move several tons of sand to create a shaft they could use to reach the first level of the tomb

Finding the coffin in such good condition and in the tomb of its original owner are both rarities in Saqqara. Tomb robbers were active in the area in ancient times, and most tombs were then reused several times over so not many of the original owner's belongings would remain there

Finding the coffin in such good condition and in the tomb of its original owner are both rarities in Saqqara. Tomb robbers were active in the area in ancient times, and most tombs were then reused several times over so not many of the original owner’s belongings would remain there

WHAT WAS SAQQARA?

Saqqara is famous as an Egyptian village that contains ancient burial grounds of Egyptian royalty.

Saqqara contains numerous pyramids, including the Step Pyramid of Djoser, widely believed to be the oldest pyramid in the world. 

The site extends along the edge of the desert plateau for about 5 miles (8 km), bordering Abū Ṣīr to the north and Dahshūr to the south.

In 1979 the ancient ruins of the Memphis area, including Ṣaqqārah, Abū Ṣīr, Dahshūr, Abū Ruwaysh, and the Pyramids of Giza, were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Source: Encyclopædia Britannica 

Finding the coffin intact and in the tomb of its original owner are both rarities in Saqqara. 

While it was found in good condition, a part of its lid was broken off and had been left in the corner of the room, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

The archaeologists claim this was the result of tomb robbers breaking open and looting the casket.

Tomb robbers were active in the area in ancient times, and most tombs were then reused several times over so not many of the original owner’s belongings would remain there.

However, Ptah-em-wia was the original builder of the tomb where his sarcophagus was found.

His coffin shows a record of all his titles, including Great Overseer of the Cattle and Royal Scribe.

He headed the treasury of Egyptian pharaoh King Ramses II in the era following the death of Tutankhamen. 

It also has a picture of a human figure with his hands crossed over his chest and Ptah-em-wia’s face wearing a false chin.

Professor El Aguizy said: ‘This sarcophagus is a good example of New Kingdom style of sarcophagi for the elite. 

‘It is in granite and is inscribed with usual emblems of the gods: the Sky-goddess Nut on the lid covering the chest with her opened wings to protect the deceased, the four sons of the Sun-God Horus surrounding the sarcophagus with prayers for the protection of the deceased. 

‘The features of the face and the beard reveal also the nice artistic features of the New Kingdom art, and the high rank of the deceased.’

According to the show’s producer, this is the ‘find of the season’ and hugely significant in the archaeological world.

Professor El Aguizy’s team will now study the sarcophagus fully to uncover the whole story of Ptah-em-wia’s life. 

The eight-part series uncovers the secrets of the ancient civilisation by crawling through tombs and following excavations with the latest technology.

You can watch Lost Treasures of Egypt on National Geographic with a Disney Plus subscription.

Professor Ola El Aguizy said: 'The hiéroglyphs on the sarcophagus certify that it is Ptah-em-wia and also the titles mentioned on the sarcophagus are the same as those found on the walls of the tomb itself'

Professor Ola El Aguizy said: '[The sarcophagus] only emphasises that he is a nobleman and quite close to the king, because his titles related to the temple of millions of years in Thebes prove that he had a very important role in the administration of that time'

Professor Ola El Aguizy said: ‘The hiéroglyphs on the sarcophagus certify that it is Ptah-em-wia and also the titles mentioned on the sarcophagus are the same as those found on the walls of the tomb itself. It only emphasises that he is a nobleman and quite close to the king, because his titles related to the temple of millions of years in Thebes prove that he had a very important role in the administration of that time’

The surface-level tomb was discovered by Professor El Aguizy last season, but she was not able to descend into the underground chamber until this year

The surface-level tomb was discovered by Professor El Aguizy last season, but she was not able to descend into the underground chamber until this year

According to the show's producer, this is the 'find of the season' and hugely significant in the archaeological world

According to the show’s producer, this is the ‘find of the season’ and hugely significant in the archaeological world

WHO WAS RAMSES II?

The sun's rays illuminate statues (pictured) inside the Great Temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt twice a year

The sun’s rays illuminate statues (pictured) inside the Great Temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt twice a year

Ramses II lived from 1279 BC to 1213 BC.

The pharaoh was known to Egyptians as Userma’atre’setepenre, meaning ‘keeper of Harmony and Balance, Strong in Right, Elect of Ra’, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Ramses II was the 19th Dynasty’s third pharaoh, who reportedly declared a decisive victory at The Battle of Kadesh over the Hittites.

Ramses II supposedly flaunted the result of this battle to elevate his reputation.

However, the battle ended in somewhat of a tie, and was not exactly a win for either party.

In fact, it resulted in the earliest known peace treaty, composed in 1258 BCE.

Ramses II is commonly linked to the pharaoh depicted in the book of Exodus in the Bible.

But there is no archaeological or historical evidence associating the two figures.

Ramses II fathered more than 100 children before his death in 1213 BC – more than any other pharaoh.


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