Digging up Egypt's Treasures

The ten most significant discoveries in the past 20 years

(Eric Jaffe)

While the Rosetta stone and some of the most famous discoveries in Egyptology were made long ago, some more recent discoveries have been equally spectacular in both appearance and historical heft. To identify ten significant finds from the last 20 years, Smithsonian.com consulted with two eminent scholars: Josef Wegner at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia and Betsy M. Bryan at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

1. KV 5
Discovered: 1987
Dates to: 1290-1224 B.C.
Place: Valley of the Kings

This massive complex of more than 100 chambers was called the largest royal tomb in Egypt when it was found in the Valley of the Kings 20 years ago. Initially, U.S. archaeologist Kent R. Weeks believed he'd located the mausoleum of Ramses II's principal sons (the powerful ruler had 52 of them).

Weeks didn't actually discover the tomb; an English Egyptologist, James Burton, explored KV 5 in 1825 and mapped a few of the rooms. Afterward, however, the entrance was lost until Weeks and his crew relocated it.

To date, they've identified 121 corridors and rooms inside the ruins. Weeks speculates that when the painstaking excavation and conservation work is completed, KV 5 could have more than 150 rooms.

2. Worker Cemetery
Discovered: 1990
Dates to: 2575-2134 B.C.
Place: Giza

While many imaginative souls believe aliens built the pyramids at Giza, the people responsible were actually earthly beings, skilled and unskilled. And thousands of them were buried in mud-brick structures located south of the Great Sphinx.

Egypt's renowned dean of antiquities, Zahi Hawass, had theorized that this was the case. But only after a tourist's horse stumbled over a sandy ruin did he have proof. The laborers and their overseers were buried in modest replicas of the grand edifices they erected for kings and queens. Inscriptions and bones tell stories of the workers and how physically demanding it was to construct a pyramid.

3. Alexandria Ruins and Artifacts
Discovered: 1994
Dates to: 332-330 B.C.
Place: Alexandria's harbor

Two teams of French underwater archaeologists plunged beneath the waves off the coastline to explore this busy port's Ptolemaic past. The first group, led by Jean-Yves Empereur, found several 36-foot-long granite blocks that he believed came from the lighthouse at Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The second group, led by Frank Goddio, found remains of a palace. These discoveries and others give a sense of how grand the area around the fabled lighthouse must have been. And since the new city has been built right atop the old, going underwater is one of the easier ways to dig up the past.

4. Valley of the Golden Mummies
Discovered: 1996
Dates to: 330 B.C.-A.D. 300
Place: Bahariya Oasis

A donkey's stumble led to the discovery of an amazing necropolis of thousands of mummies, some which were adorned in gold. The cemetery in the Western Desert was the last resting place for residents of an oasis that thrived on wine production. Most of the mummies found so far are from the years when Greece and then Rome ruled Egypt. Ongoing excavations have helped historians learn much about this period.

5. Tomb of Maia, Wet Nurse of King Tutankhamun
Discovered: 1997
Dates to: circa 1335 B.C.
Place: Saqqara

Cobbling together the biography of the boy-king Tutankhamun got a little easier when the French archaeologist Alain-Pierre Zivie found the tomb of Tut's wet nurse, Maia, "the one who has fed the god's body." A carving of her dandling the baby on her knee adorns one of the walls.

Excavations here and throughout Saqqara are key to learning about what went on during the Amarna Period when Tut's father, Akhenaten, held the throne. Often called the heretic king, Akhenaten abolished polytheism and moved the capital from Thebes to a new city named Akhenaten. After his death, polytheism returned, and the capital moved back to Thebes.

6. Origins of the Alphabet
Discovered: 1999
Dates to: 1900-1800 B.C.
Place: Wadi el-Hol

Almost 4,000 years ago, Semitic peoples living in Egypt wrote a message on stone cliffs in the desert west of the Nile. The two inscriptions are the earliest examples of alphabetic writing, pushing the use of such communication back about three centuries earlier than previously thought. The discoverers, John and Deborah Darnell of Yale University, think the inscriptions were left by a group of early Canaanites, perhaps part of a gang of skilled laborers working on tombs. These ancient people figured out how to use Egyptian hieroglyphics to convey their own language.

7. Birth Brick
Discovered: 2001
Dates to: 1750-1700 B.C.
Place: South Abydos

While excavating in South Abydos, archaeologist Josef Wegner found a magical birth brick that women of ancient Egypt used for support while they squatted during childbirth. Wegner, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, knew the bricks existed because they were mentioned in spells. But the 20-inch-long piece of unbaked mud was the first one ever found.

Decorated with polychrome paint, the brick's sides depict deities and demons. On the top a woman cradles a baby flanked by images of the goddess Hathor. Such iconography conveys the importance of childbirth—and divine assistance in the process—at a time of high infant mortality.

8. Statue of Queen Tiy
Discovered: 2006
Dates to: circa 1360 B.C.
Place: South Karnak

Placing a larger-than-life-sized statue of Queen Tiy in a temple dedicated to the fierce goddess Mut conveyed a strong image: this was a woman of great importance, a ruler who wanted to associate herself with the punishing aspects of the gods and their ability to put things right again.

It must have worked, because several hundred years later, another Egyptian queen, Henttawy, had her name inscribed on the beautiful statue, hoping no doubt to benefit from such a powerful association.

Images of Tiy found prior to the statue's discovery had shown her with her husband, Akhenaten. The depiction of Tiy standing solo implies that she had some authority in the cult of Mut and suggests that other queens might have been more active members of this cult than previously thought. The statue now resides in the Cairo's Egyptian Museum.

9. Red Sea Ship
Discovered: 2004
Dates to: 2000-1800 B.C.
Place: Wadi Gawasis

Cedar timbers and steering oars found in caves near the Red Sea shed light on Egypt's ancient trading activities. Limestone tablets found near the site's entrance described trips to Punt and Bia-Punt, two mysterious places in the ancient world that have yet to be positively located. Since a cartouche, an object with the seal of King Amenemhat III, was also found at the site, Egyptologists speculate that he ordered the expeditions around 1800 B.C., perhaps to get myrrh, the valuable, aromatic plant resin used in incense.

10. Confirmation of Queen Hatshepsut's Mummy
Discovered: June 2007
Dates to: 1478-1458 B.C.
Place: Cairo

The remains of the enigmatic Egyptian Museum in Cairo scanned the tooth, held inside a box inscribed with the queen's name. They then compared the scan to a gap in the mouth of a mummy long believed to be Hatshepsut; the tooth matched the gap within a fraction of a millimeter.

Robin T. Reid, a freelance writer and editor in Baltimore, Maryland, has written about fossils recently discovered in Kenya.


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