Archaeologists Were Digging In Egypt When They Discovered A 3,800-Year-Old Unopened Tomb

Image: via Luxor Times

In March 2017, archaeologists from the University of Jaén in the Spanish region of Andalusia were excavating in the ancient Egyptian city of Qubbet El-Hawa. They had found a tomb from more than 3,800 years ago. The question was, had grave robbers been there before them, or would they find something of real significance? They were about to find out…

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The experts in antiquities were working in the necropolis of Qubbet El-Hawa, which means “Hill of the Wind.” The cemetery of Qubbet El-Hawa is set on the west bank of the River Nile, about 425 miles south of Egypt’s modern capital, Cairo. The monumental burial site is located just across the river from the city of Aswan.

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This huge graveyard was where the rulers and other important people from the island of Elephantine were buried. Elephantine is on the Nile, and it’s just 3,900 feet long and 1,300 feet wide. Almost 3,700 years ago, the island marked the boundary between Egypt and the Nubian kingdom to the south.

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Elephantine’s location on the Nile made it a significant commercial center as well an important defensive position and there were fortifications on the island. Today there are some important archaeological sites there, including a temple dedicated to Khnum, the god of the Nile’s source.

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The ancient Egyptians believed that Khnum lived on Elephantine and had the head of a ram. They also believed that this powerful god created babies on a potter’s wheel with clay. He then placed them in their mother’s wombs.

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When the rulers of Elephantine died, their remains were taken across the Nile to the necropolis at Qubbet El-Hawa, as were the remains of their family members and other important dignitaries. The senior members of the Elephantine ruling class had the most lavish graves while people lower down the pecking order had simpler tombs.

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The necropolis consists of a series of magnificent man-made terraces by the banks of the Nile. Archaeologists have estimated that there are around 100 tombs of varying degrees of splendor at the site. Around 20 of those remain to be excavated, potentially providing exciting discoveries for many years to come.

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Speaking to website Live Science in 2016, one of the Egyptologists from the University of Jaén, Alejandro Jiménez-Serrano, underlined the significance of the Qubbet el-Hawa site. “Qubbet el-Hawa is one of the most important non-royal necropolises of ancient Egypt,” he said, noting in particular the large number and intricate quality of the inscriptions carved on the tombs’ external walls.

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“The necropolis was mainly used to bury the highest officials of the nearby town of Elephantine, the capital of the southernmost province of Egypt, at the end of the third millennium and the beginning of the second (2200 B.C. to 1775 B.C),” Jiménez-Serrano continued.

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Image: Alejandro Jiménez Serrano via Live Science

Archaeologists from the University of Jaén have been working at the Qubbet el-Hawa site for a decade now alongside colleagues from Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. And they’ve made some outstanding finds. One came in 2016 when they uncovered the tomb of a woman called Sattjeni.

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Sattjeni was a central figure in the ruling elite of Elephantine, with a network of familial connections. Not only was she the daughter of one of the island’s rulers, she was also the mother of two children both of whom also became Elephantine leaders.

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Sattjeni’s father was Sarenput II, a governor of Elephantine. As was the custom of the day in the Egypt of around 4,000 years ago, Sarenput II built a lavish final resting-place for himself while he was still very much alive. The mausoleum includes some exquisite wall paintings.

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Sattjeni married another Elephantine governor, Heqaib II. The union produced two sons, Ameny-Seneb and Heqaib III, and they both went on to become rulers of the island in their own right. So she was a woman right at the heart of this ancient Egyptian dynasty of island chiefs.

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Image: Alejandro Jiménez Serrano via Live Science

The mummified corpse of Sattjeni was interred in two coffins. Both were made from Lebanon cedarwood, and although the outer casket had decayed, the inner one was remarkably well-preserved. As Jiménez-Serrano observed, “This discovery shows that the local dynasties of the periphery of the state emulated the royal family.” A kind of keeping up with the royal Joneses.

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So, with the discovery of Sattjeni’s tomb, the 2016 excavation season was certainly a successful one for the Spanish archaeologists and their Egyptian colleagues. They could only hope that the 2017 season would be equally rewarding. And as it turned out, they did make an extraordinary discovery, one intimately linked to their find of the previous year.

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They came across a grave which had been completely untouched since it had been sealed up nearly four millennia previously. That’s an unusual thing to find. Most graves have been plundered by looters over the centuries on the hunt for treasure. But this one had escaped the attention of the grave robbers.

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The tomb was that of a man called Shemai, as the hieroglyphics on his casket attested. And this was the son of Khema, another Elephantine governor, and Satethotep. Those two were also the parents of Sarenput II which of course means that Shemai was his brother – his younger sibling as it happens. That also means that Shemai was the uncle of Sattjeni, whose tomb was uncovered in 2016.

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Shemai’s mummified remains, just like those of his niece Sattjeni, were encased in two coffins made of cedarwood. The tomb also contained burial items including ceramics and a set of wooden models of funeral boats and figures representing everyday life. The Egyptians believed these models would help the deceased in the afterlife.

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Image: via Wikimedia Commons

The mummy also had a colored cartonnage, a kind of funeral mask made from layers of a material such as linen. The linen would be covered with plaster and then painted. Jiménez-Serrano told the Luxor Times magazine in March 2017 that “This discovery…  adds more data to previous discoveries of 14 members of the ruling family of Elephantine during the 12th Dynasty.”

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So the excavations at Qubbet el-Hawa over the years have uncovered an extraordinary collection of tombs and mummies representing the family links of the rulers of Elephantine Island. And as Jiménez-Serrano said, “Such [a] high number of individuals provides a unique opportunity to study the life conditions of the high class in Egypt more than 3,800 years ago.”

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