Archaeologists Uncover Hundreds of Colorful Sarcophagi at Saqqara—and They’re Not Done Yet

The 2,500-year-old coffins are the latest in the site’s seemingly endless parade of ancient treasures

Numerous sarcophagi laid out on a table
Hundreds of sarcophagi have been excavated from the Saqqara archaeological site thus far. Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

For thousands of years, ancient Egyptian dynasties laid their nobility to rest beneath the desert sand, often surrounding them with treasures and trinkets to take with them into the afterlife. The burials for the ancient city of Memphis took place in a massive necropolis about 15 miles southwest of Cairo.

Today, the place where they buried their dead is the archaeological site of Saqqara—and the vast scale of the ancient city of the dead is still coming into focus. A newly unveiled find should help: Researchers just revealed a massive trove of artifacts from the site, including hundreds of ancient sarcophagi in which ancient Egypt’s well-heeled dead were buried.

This week, archaeologists from Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced the recovery of more than 250 sarcophagi, 150 bronze statues and a variety of other antiquities from the site. The remarkably well-preserved objects in the necropolis are still in good—and sometimes colorful—condition, the researchers say.

The laundry list of discoveries includes bronze statues that depict ancient Egyptian gods, including Anubis, Osiris, Nefertem, Isis, and Hathor; 40 wooden coffins with mummies sealed inside; evidence of a burial along with bronze and brass trinkets and adornments, and more.

"We found two beautiful wooden statues with golden faces of the deities Isis and Neftis, named the protectors of the coffin," excavation director Mohamed Al Saidi tells CBS News’ Ahmed Shawkat. "They were in a seated position [by one coffin], one of them by the head of the coffin and the other by the feet, in a position called 'the mourners' or 'weepers' for the deceased."

Another find at the site could reveal even more about ancient Egyptian burial practices. Inside the coffin protected by Isis and Neftis, the team found a papyrus scroll estimated to be up to 30 feet long that could contain parts of the “Book of the Dead”—a collection of ancient Egyptian texts filled with spells and formulas believed to protect the deceased in the afterlife. That scroll has been sent to a lab at the Egyptian Museum.

Though the discoveries are thousands of years old, many are in excellent condition and still have their paint and gilding intact. “These figurines, though a bit scuffed, don’t look their age,” writes Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky; “the items were manufactured around 2,500 years ago.”

The cemetery site where the coffins and statues were found was originally named for the ancient Egyptian cat-goddess Bast, due to the numerous statues of the deity discovered there. However, because of continued findings of statues of other gods and mummified animals, the site was renamed the Cemetery of Sacred Animals in 2019.

The newest discoveries there, Al Saidi tells CBS News, “[confirm] that the temple wasn’t exclusively for cats, but for other Egyptian deities, too.”

Egyptian antiquity authorities let the press get a close-up look at the numerous artifacts in a pop-up exhibit near the base of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the AP reports. The findings will eventually be transferred to the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo when it opens in November, according to the Washington Post‘s Rachel Pannett. The Post reports the Egyptian government hopes the finds will reinvigorate Egypt’s tourism sector, which has suffered from political unrest, pandemic-related travel restrictions, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Ukrainian and Russian tourists typically make up a large portion of Egypt’s visitors each year.)

But Saqqara might have what it takes to tempt tourists curious about Egypt’s ancient past. The necropolis is unlike other burial grounds for ancient Egyptian nobility, Smithsonian magazine’s Jo Marchant reports. Other cemeteries might have sprawling, lavish tombs for individual persons or families. In contrast, Saqqara is characterized by “megatombs” stuffed with hundreds of expensive coffins. While discoveries at the site have spanned 3,000 years—from the time of the first pharaohs to the Roman subjugation of Egypt—most of the sarcophagi found have been from ancient Egypt’s Late Period, from 525 to 332 B.C.E.

Two statues of women kneeling
These statues watched over a coffin that contained a scroll archaeologists believe might be part of the Book of the Dead. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

During that period, Egypt was largely under Persian occupation. Though the era was characterized by a struggle for Egyptian autonomy, the occupied peoples’ culture thrived under the Persians, who respected Egyptian ways, arts, and religion. By that point, Smithsonian reports, shared tombs had become a common burial practice, necessitated by political instability around 1000 B.C.E.

By then, Saqqara was already iconic as home of Egypt’s oldest pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, constructed around 4,700 years ago. By the Late Period, the site was already ancient and associated with the gods and the divine. A burial place close to the deities of the afterlife would have been coveted by ancient Egyptian nobility

In modern times, Saqqara is known for other reasons—its seemingly unending archaeological treasures. To date, more than 450 sarcophagi have been discovered there, CBS reports, with many more yet to be uncovered—only 300 feet of the quarter-mile-long site have been excavated thus far. In November 2020, Smithsonian’s Marchant reported at the time, researchers unveiled another trove of over 100 sarcophagi. That find included funerary masks and statues of deities of the dead.

At the time, Saqqara archaeologist Salima Ikram told Smithsonian that finding such a trove in an untouched tomb from the Late Period was “extremely significant,” though Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum in the United Kingdom, added that the sarcophagi were “lots more of what we already have.”

Though the objects may be similar, they make up for their lack of variety with sheer quantity. And given how much territory archaeologists still have to tackle, it’s likely these finds are just the beginning. Saqqara’s dead may have been dormant for millennia, but their resting place is finally giving up its secrets.

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