Descend 7 meters under the sandy hills of southern Egypt to become one of the first modern humans to explore a newly-discovered ancient Egyptian tomb.
A man in a gray robe and white headscarf brushes the dust, undisturbed for thousands of years, off a human skull, one of many messily discarded by grave robbers.
“They were searching for gold and jewelry, and when they didn’t find it they just threw everything over here,” says Ali Farouq al-Gaftawi, the veteran foreman at the excavation at Draa Abu Al-Naga, a barren desert hillside overlooking the lush, green Nile Valley.
Al-Gaftawi never studied archaeology – he never went to university – but over the past four decades, working on dozens of digs with some of the world’s top Egyptologists, he has learned a thing or two about those he calls his “grandfathers and grandmothers,” the inhabitants of ancient Egypt.
A tall man with a big black mustache, a big stick and an air of authority, al-Gaftawi has been overseeing the work here since April, when this tomb was discovered.
The tomb dates back to the Middle Kingdom (2050-1750 BCE), but was used and reused multiple times. Egyptian authorities invited the media to see inside for the first time on September 9.
It’s just the latest find in this antiquity-rich area on the west bank of the Nile near the modern city of Luxor, once known as Thebes, or Wasit in ancient Egyptian.
I meet al-Gaftawi after climbing down into a six- or seven-meter-deep pit on two rickety aluminum ladders tied together with rope. It’s hot and stuffy down here, and within about a minute my shirt is soaked with sweat. But the discomfort of the cramped, low tomb is quickly forgotten.
In addition to the piles of bones, three mummies, their skulls exposed, are laid out side by side. Next to them, a worker is injecting glue into the still vividly colored cover of a coffin to prevent the wood, buried beneath the dirt for thousands of years, from crumbling into dust now it has been exposed, once again, to the air.
Thousands of years ago, craftsmen painted the coffin with hieroglyphs – “magic formulas,” according to al-Gaftawi.
Earlier, an official from the Egyptian Antiquities Department told me the coffin, dating back to what is known as the Third Intermediate Period, around 1000 BCE, was bought “off-the-shelf, like a T-shirt.” We may remember the pharaohs as those who went to great lengths in pursuit of eternal life, but it was a goal shared by their subjects as well.
There are a few clues about who might have been buried here, including a statue and two plaques identifying the owner of the tomb as Amenemhat the Goldsmith, and his wife, Amenhotep. Having studied hieroglyphs myself, I can make that much out.
On one of the plaques, the “Amen” in the name “Amenemhat” had been covered with white clay, indicating that the goldsmith and his wife had lived before what is known as the Amarna Period, when the Pharaoh Akhenaten tried, and ultimately failed, to ban the worship of Amen (also known as Amon or Amoun, the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus).
The pharaoh tried to replace Amen with the sole worship of Aten (or Aton, the disk of the sun, an aspect of the Egyptian sun god Ra). During this period, Akhenaton’s supporters attempted to obliterate all inscriptions of the name “Amen.”
Yes, this is all inside baseball, but at the time, in the middle of the 14th century BCE, this was a major schism in Egypt. It does help, in the absence of any other information, to determine when Amenemhat and his wife lived and died.
Up above the pit, Sherine Shawqi of the Antiquities Department explains to me what she knows about the mummified occupant of another coffin under a tarp. The rough, thick, time-worn wooden box itself has very little in the way of decoration, and the mummy inside, swathed in brown linen, has no recognizable features.
But Sherine and her colleagues have put the mummy through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and found that the body underneath the wrappings is that of a woman who suffered from tooth abscesses and cavities, arthritis and a bad back. From worn-down bones in her right hand they determined she had probably walked with a cane.
How long did she live, I ask?
“She died at the age of fifty-five, plus or minus,” says Sherine, an enthusiastic and clearly well-informed young woman with a bright pink shirt and brown headscarf with equally bright pink flowers.
I am intrigued. I know that life for most people in ancient Egypt was shockingly short. One study carried out by a German university on around 400 mummies dating back to 1500 BCE found that the average life span for men was 34, a mere 30 for woman. The lower longevity for women is attributed to the hazards of childbirth.
Commoners suffered from infectious diseases and vitamin C and D deficiencies and were often malnourished and overworked. Their diet consisted primarily of bread and beer. (Speaking of beer, ancient Egyptian doctors noted that it “gladdens the heart.” Given the lot of ordinary Egyptians of the time, that was probably no small solace.)
Despite the dismal statistics, physicians in ancient Egypt were considered the best in the world, although some might question the efficacy of a frequently prescribed female contraceptive: a plug of crocodile dung and honey. Some did, however, recommend cannabis for cancer patients.
But the unknown lady in the coffin from the Middle Kingdom clearly was a woman of means who could afford good medical care. Why can we make that assumption? Because, says Sherine, her coffin was made of cedar, an expensive wood not found in Egypt, probably imported all the way from Lebanon.
In the grand scheme of things, the rather overhyped opening of this modest tomb in Draa Abu Al-Naga doesn’t really reveal anything earthshaking. Dozens of journalists—Egyptian and international—flew from Cairo to cover the event. Yet it was just the latest of hundreds of tombs in this area to be uncovered.
It does, however, reveal little details that help fill out our understanding of the people who lived in what was, beyond a doubt, the most sophisticated and enduring civilization of the ancient Mediterranean.
It’s sometimes hard to get your head around just how ancient the civilization was. Consider this: Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt, is closer to us in time than she was to the builders of the pyramids. The Romans, who were avid visitors to the monuments of the Nile Valley, were in awe at the antiquity of Egyptian civilization. As are we.
But to foreman Ali Farouq Al-Gaftawi, the people who lived so long ago are just his distant ancestors. “I dream about them all the time,” he says. “I see their faces, I can hear their voices. I know them.”