Ancient Egyptian Coffin Opened for the First Time in 2,600 Years

The sarcophagus is one of 59 unearthed at the Saqqara necropolis in recent months

Saqqara mummy
The deceased's mummified remains were wrapped in burial linen and laid to rest in a wooden coffin. Photo by Khaled Desouki / AFP via Getty Images

On Saturday, October 3, archaeologists from Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities opened a sealed, roughly 2,600-year-old sarcophagus as a crowd of onlookers watched in anticipation. Lifting the lid, the researchers revealed a mummy wrapped in ornate burial linen; more than two millennia after the individual’s interment, the cloth’s inscriptions and colorful designs remained intact.

Per a statement, the newly unveiled coffin is one of 59 sealed sarcophagi unearthed at the Saqqara necropolis—a sprawling ancient cemetery located south of Cairo—in recent months. Found stacked on top of each other in three burial shafts of differing depths (between 32 and 39 feet each), the coffins date to Egypt’s 26th Dynasty, which spanned 664 to 525 B.C. Researchers think the wooden containers hold the remains of priests, government officials and similarly prominent members of ancient Egyptian society.

As Samy Magdy reports for the Associated Press, excavations at Saqqara have also yielded 28 statues of the god Ptah-Soker and a bronze, one-foot-tall sculpture of the god Nefertum. The work is inscribed with its owner’s name: Priest Badi-Amun.

Authorities announced the discovery of an initial trove of 13 wooden coffins in early September. Another 14 followed later that month. The latest batch of finds—revealed at the October 3 press conference—adds 32 sarcophagi to the count, raising the total number of coffins found to 59. More may follow, said tourism and antiquities minister Khaled al-Anani at the unveiling.

“[T]oday is not the end of the discovery,” he added, as quoted by Agence France-Presse’s (AFP) Mohamed Abouelenen and Menna Zaki. “I consider it the beginning of the big discovery.”

Saqqara is home to a number of extravagant tombs, including one of the region’s first pyramids, the Step Pyramid of Djoser. But the site has sustained damage over the centuries, with looters and unauthorized excavations exacting a heavy toll—a fact that makes the coffins’ pristine state of preservation particularly impressive, as Amanda Kooser wrote for CNET in September.

“We know from geophysical surveys that there was a vast network of temples, in addition to tombs, here, and [the discovery of the coffins] will be valuable to expand our knowledge of the cults that operated at Saqqara based on the inscriptions,” Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at England’s Manchester Museum, tells the Art Newspaper’s Garry Shaw.

According to AFP, the coffins will be displayed at the much-anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum, which is slated to open in Giza in 2021. Here, the sarcophagi will stand across from a group of around 30 sealed coffins unearthed in Luxor last October.

“Coffin caches of this type are far from exceptional, but they tend to come from Luxor in the south,” says Price. “The real value of the recent find is the light these examples throw onto northern coffin styles, and no doubt also names and titles that previously have not been firmly associated with the Saqqara area.”

Archaeologists revealed the sarcophagus' contents at an October 3 press conference. Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities via Facebook
The deceased's mummified remains were wrapped in burial linen and laid to rest in a wooden coffin. Photo by Khaled Desouki / AFP via Getty Images

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