Ancient tombs found in Egypt? Old news. Mummies in the tombs? Old news. Mummified cats? Not as common, but still old news. Mummified scarab beetles? Now there’s something you don’t hear about very often. Throw in a sealed door that appears to never have been opened and you’ve got the makings of a great discovery in the Saqqara necropolis.
“The (mummified) scarab is something really unique. It is something really a bit rare. A couple of days ago, when we discovered those coffins, they were sealed coffins with drawings of scarabs. I never heard about them before.”
That explains the excited announcement last week by Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, of the discovery of seven tombs – three from the New Kingdom and four from the Old Kingdom – containing a wide variety of animal sarcophagi and wooden statues. The tombs were discovered in a partially excavated area on the edge of the pyramid complex dedicated to the mysterious King Userkaf, the founder of the Fifth Dynasty whose parents and queen are unknown. One of the tombs belonged to Khufu-Imhat, the overseer of the royal buildings in the royal palace. Another of the 4,500-year-old tombs has its door still sealed, meaning it may have escaped looting by grave-robbers. Mohamed Youssef, director of the Saqqara area says it will be opened soon.
However, the center of interest is the animal mummies, especially the scarabs – large dung beetles that were revered in ancient Egypt. (Large set of photos here.) Two of the mummified scarabs were found wrapped in linen and in very good condition inside a limestone sarcophagus with a decorated lid. More were found in a smaller sarcophagus. Mummified scarabs are extremely rare finds and these are not only the first in this area but the first anywhere that date back to the Fifth Dynasty.
Another tomb contained dozens of cat mummies, gold-covered statues of cats and a bronze statue dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet, who was apparently the world’s first cat lady. In addition to the feline collection, there were mummified crocodiles in crocodile sarcophagi, crocodile statues and painted wooden statues of cobras. And of course, the usual burial objects such as amulets, canopic jars and papyri baskets. The mummified cats could have been pets of the tomb owner but more likely they, the other animals and especially the scarabs were gifts for the gods.
How many more tombs may have had unusual contents like these but were looted or destroyed? We’ll probably never know. However, it’s good that the Council of Antiquities has recognized their value – even if it’s just to attract tourists with money – and is doing its best to preserve these and future discoveries.