This Ancient Egyptian Burial Chamber Was Filled With Spells to Ward Off Snake Bites

Although serpents were a symbol of protection for the Egyptians, the discovery suggests some were wary of getting venomous bites after death

the top of a sarcophagus covered in writing with a glyph-covered wall behind it lit in an arch
The north wall of an ancient Egyptian burial chamber decorated with spells protecting against snake bites Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University in Prague

Indiana Jones famously fears slithering snakes in Egyptian tombs—and apparently, so did one ancient, high-ranking dignitary.

Archaeologists recently discovered a 2,500-year-old burial chamber adorned with magical spells meant to ward off snake bites. It belonged to a royal scribe named Djehutyemhat and is located almost 50 feet below ground in the western part of Abúsír, an Egyptian pyramid complex between Giza and Saqqara. The researchers say the site is as old as the first millennium B.C.E., according to a Czech language statement from the Czech Institute of Egyptology (CIE) at Charles University in Prague.

Djehutyemhat served during a critical time in Egyptian military history, when Persian forces invaded the area. Many ancient high-ranking military officials and commanders also received honorable burials at Abúsír, but the scribe’s tomb stands out from the rest due to the detailed, snake-deterring spells on its northern wall.

“Such a strong emphasis on snake spells was probably the consequence of a personal choice of the tomb owner,” Egyptologist Miroslav Bárta, director of the CIE’s research at Abúsír, tells Live Science’s Owen Jarus. “No similar case with such excessive attention to these spells is known.”

Snake bites were likely much more common in Ancient Egypt than they are today. However, the serpent was also an important religious symbol. “Interestingly, the snakes mentioned in these magical texts both represented a potential danger and could serve as powerful protectors of the deceased and his mummy,” according to the translated statement from CIE.

depiction of a humanoid god with ram's horns besides smaller depictions of animals including birds
A depiction of the god Banebdjedet on one side of the sarcophagus. Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University in Prague

After analyzing Djehutyemhat’s bones, the scientists suggest the scribe was just 25 years old when he died. His spine shows signs of wear—likely due to his sedentary occupation of writing all day—and he appears to have had acute osteoporosis despite his young age, probably because of genetic factors.

Although the above-ground area of the tomb was demolished long ago, the burial chamber is richly decorated with different texts and artwork. In the chamber lies a large stone sarcophagus adorned with depictions of goddesses and hieroglyphics meant to safeguard the dead. Included are excerpts from the Book of the Dead, an ancient funerary text filled with spells and magical formulas intended to guide the deceased in the afterlife.

“The Goddess of the West [Imentet] inside the sarcophagus represents the protector, guide and symbolic mother of the deceased,” says Jiří Janák, a CIE researcher who interprets religious and magical texts, in the statement.

Djehutyemhat’s tomb contained few remaining artifacts for the archaeologists to find. The CIE team believes that looters visited the resting place as early as the 5th century C.E. However, they were able to recover some pottery during excavations, including bowls and jars.

“This newly discovered tomb allows a better understanding of the changes that took place in Egypt and the surrounding states in the 6th–5th centuries C.E.,” says Ladislav Bareš, a CIE Egyptologist researching the site, in the statement.

Given the attention to detail decorating the tomb, it seems clear that those who buried Djehutyemhat wanted to honor him. According to the statement, “All the mentioned religio-magical texts were intended to ensure the deceased a smooth entry into a blissful and well-provided eternal life in the afterlife.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.