New archaeological treasure in Egypt: a necropolis from the era started by Alexander the Great

Like many of the discoveries in Egypt, it all began with the discovery of a well full of sand.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
11 February 2024 Sunday 10:09
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New archaeological treasure in Egypt: a necropolis from the era started by Alexander the Great

Like many of the discoveries in Egypt, it all began with the discovery of a well full of sand. Members of the Oxyrhynchus archaeological mission began excavating. And in this last campaign they found the tomb that they had been looking for so much, not because of the people buried there but because it corresponds to the Ptolemaic era, that of Greek domination of Egypt after the conquest of Alexander the Great. The team led by Maite Mascort and Esther Pons continued excavating and managed to find a second burial from the same historical period in the same area of ​​the site. And up to three more have been identified still buried under the desert sand.

That is to say, after 30 years of excavations, everything seems to indicate that the mission of the University of Barcelona has managed to find the Greek necropolis of Oxyrhynchus, the only one that remained to be discovered (along with the Saíta, Roman and Christian), one of the most important cities of that period in which Alexandria served as the great capital of Egypt.

For archaeologist Maite Mascort, it is “a very promising new sector” that has already shown some of its archaeological treasures inside the two tombs that have been opened, belonging to wealthy people in the city. "This discovery suggests that El-Bahnasa still hides numerous secrets that are waiting to be revealed," Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in a statement.

Located about 200 kilometers south of Cairo, ancient Oxyrhynchus (modern El-Bahnasa) experienced its great splendor after the Macedonian conquest of Egypt, becoming the third city in the country. This fact is key to understanding the importance of the discovery. “A large community of Greek settlers settled in Oxyrhynchus from Alexandria,” Mascort explained.

Another characteristic of the discovery lies in the typology of the tombs. For the first time in Oxyrhynchus, hypogea excavated in the natural rock have been found. And both also have a door facing east that gives entry to the cavities where the sarcophagi are located, which were walled up. This orientation, coinciding with the sunrise and surely responds to funerary rites related to rebirth after death.

In the first tomb excavated, five sarcophagi were discovered, two of them completely closed and in which the mummies of a man and a woman were found covered with polychrome cardboard, in addition to 23 more mummies spread throughout the cavity. In this hypogeum the presence of terracotta figures representing the goddess Isis-Aphrodite stands out. “It is the first time that this type of figures appear so far south,” says the Catalan archaeologist.

In the other tomb, still in the excavation phase, four anthropomorphic sarcophagi were found, one of them with two mummified individuals inside, and one or two more are expected to appear. Next to the well of this hypogeum, some stone blocks decorated with paint were discovered, some with representations of animals such as hares or doves, as well as vines and other plants. “It would be a kind of chapel from the end of the Ptolemaic era,” explains Mascort.

The directors of the Oxirrinco mission will announce the details of the findings of the last campaign, which was carried out last December, in a conference that will begin next Monday in the historic building of the University of Barcelona, ​​organized by the SocietatCatalan de Egyptology, which also participates in the mission. In addition to the new necropolis, the work that has begun to be carried out to be able to read the magical papyri that many mummies belonging to the Roman period had deposited on their chests will also be detailed. “There are two that say 'eternal life', but the papyri are folded and cannot be opened without damaging them, so we are using non-invasive techniques to be able to read them,” she says.

In the last campaign, a golden death mask also appeared and two golden tongues were found again in Roman mummies, adding to the fourteen found in other years. The high presence of this element of the burial ritual is one of the hallmarks of this immense site along with the thousands of buried fish, some even mummified, that appeared in 2012. Some of the specimens are oxyrhynchs, a fish related to goddess of the place Tueris and whose name has identified the city that little by little is revealing its mysteries to Egyptologists.