Digging up Egypt's Treasures

The ten most significant discoveries in the past 20 years

(Eric Jaffe)

(Continued from page 1)

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.


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