Editor’s Note, September 22, 2020: On Saturday, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced the discovery of another 14 sealed sarcophagi at the Saqqara necropolis. Like the 13 wooden coffins excavated earlier this month, the newly unearthed sarcophagi appear to be some 2,500 years old. Archaeologists think all 27 coffins have remained intact since their burial.
Read more about the original find—and the history of this ancient cemetery—below.
For thousands of years, ancient Egyptians used the vast Saqqara necropolis to lay their dead to rest. In addition to housing countless treasures in its elaborate tombs, the burial site boasts the Step Pyramid of Djoser, a colossal structure perhaps best known as the region’s first pyramid.
Researchers discovered the 36-foot-deep burial shaft in which the wooden coffins had rested undisturbed for millennia during ongoing excavations at the Saqqara site. Authorities suspect that the containers, some of which still feature painted markings, have remained sealed since their burial, reports Michelle Starr for Science Alert.
As Amanda Kooser points out for CNET, Egyptian tombs in Saqqara have been subjected to looting and unauthorized excavations over the years—a fact that makes this well-preserved find all the more remarkable.
The presence of three sealed niches within the burial shaft suggests that more discoveries—and perhaps more coffins—are lying in wait, says Minister Khaled El-Enany in a statement.
A close-up of a painted human coffin discovered in Saqqara (Egypt Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)
Last November, a team of archaeologists at Saqqara unearthed rare mummified lion cubs, as well as mummified cats and bronze and wooden statues. And this May, National Geographic’s Andrew Curry debuted never-before-seen footage of a vast, sophisticated mummy workshop beneath the necropolis. The complex, wrote Katherine J. Wu for Smithsonian magazine at the time, is “ancient Egypt’s first known funeral home.”
For now, the identities of those interred in the newly discovered coffins remain unknown. But as Sarah Cascone explained for artnet News in May, the ancient Egyptians often buried wealthy people, whose elaborate funerary trappings included such items as limestone sarcophagi and silver or gold face masks, at the lowest depths, which were thought to be closest to the underworld. Those with fewer resources were laid to rest in wooden coffins placed in tombs’ upper tiers or simply wrapped in linen and buried in sand pits.
The find represents the largest number of coffins discovered in a single burial since last October, when authorities uncovered a trove of 30 coffins in the Al-Asasif necropolis on Luxor’s West Bank, per the statement. Authorities deemed the collection of coffins the biggest cache of its kind in more than 100 years, according to Reuters.
In the statement, officials noted that more details about the Saqqara find will be revealed in the coming weeks.
El-Enany, for his part, said on Twitter that the discovery evoked “an indescribable feeling.”