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Egyptian Authorities Open Sealed Ptolemaic-Era Sarcophagus

Rampant speculation about what was inside the black granite tomb has swirled since the relic was first discovered at a building site in Alexandria

(Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)
smithsonian.com


Update, July 20, 2018: Archaeologists appointed by Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities have opened the sealed black granite sarcophagus that has had the internet abuzz since news of its discovery was announced earlier this month.  Egypt Today delivered live updates on the press conference, where archaeologists announced that the Ptolemaic-era find contained three skeletons and red-brown sewage water. Addressing tabloid rumors that the sarcophagus might carry a "curse," Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said: "We've opened it and, thank God, the world has not fallen into darkness." So that's something. Read our original story on the discovery of the sarchophagus below:

A black granite sarcophagus was recently uncovered in the Sidi Gaber district of Alexandria, Egypt, reports Rob Waugh at Yahoo News UK. The most exciting part? A layer of mortar between the lid and the rest of the tomb indicates that the coffin hasn’t been opened in 2,000 years, which is rare in Egypt where looters have picked through tombs and burials for millennia.

The ancient sarcophagus was found by local authorities during standard archaeological excavations conducted before the construction of a new building on Al-Karmili Street. It was found approximately 16 feet below ground. A rough alabaster bust of a man, likely a depiction of the body in the coffin, was also discovered in the tomb, which is believed to date from the era of the Ptolemies, the Greek royal family dynasty that ruled for roughly three centuries from 305 to 30 B.C.E.

According to the Ministry of Antiquities, the tomb is about 8.6 feet long and more than 5 feet wide. Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, says it is the largest sarcophagus ever excavated in the city.

This is just the latest discovery in Alexandria, an ancient city written off by archaeologists for decades. According to Andrew Lawler at Smithsonian, researchers often ignored the fabled city founded by Alexander the Great and ruled over by his close advisor Ptolemy and his descendants after its namesake’s death. That’s because over the centuries a bustling, congested metro area of 5 million people has grown up over the ruins of marble palaces, monuments and other ancient works.

But over the last few decades, researchers have begun the painstaking work of urban archaeology, going layer by layer into the city’s past. In 2005, archaeologists uncovered the remains of the University of Alexandria, where ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes studied. The remains of the Pharos, a lighthouse built by the Ptolemies that was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World also lies in Alexandria’s harbor. In fact, changes in the flow of the Nile River and rising sea levels mean that large chunks of the ancient city are currently underwater, a submerged time capsule ready for exploration.

Alexandria isn’t the only coastal Egyptian city giving up its secrets. In the early 2000s, researchers discovered the legendary city Thonis-Heracleion, the ancient port city at the mouth of the Nile destroyed by an earthquake just a few miles from Alexandria. Jack Shenker at The Guardian reports that over the past decade and a half, underwater archaeologists have used vacuum systems to suck sediment and artifacts off the seabed, and have uncovered incredible statues, sarcophagi and stele, including the Decree of Sais, a stele that lays out Egypt’s intricate tax law. In fact, only 5 percent of Thonis-Heracleion has been explored, meaning there are decades of discoveries still to come.

While it’s too soon to make predictions on the identity of the body inside the newly discovered sarcophagus in Alexandria, one thing is for certain: it won’t be the last discovery made along Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.

Editor's note, July 9, 2018: Due to an editing error, the original headline of this piece misspelled "Ptolemaic." The story has been updated.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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