If any site deserves to be called the center of ancient Egyptian history, it’s Saqqara – the vast necropolis for the city of Memphis is home to the pyramid of Djoser, better known as the Step Pyramid, considered to be the first pyramid and one of the world’s oldest structures. This week it was announced that we may soon know more about the people buried in Saqqara – archeologists have uncovered more 250 mummies, 150 bronze statues of ancient Egyptian gods, and a well-preserved 30 feet long papyrus scroll that may contain chapters from the “Book of the Dead” – the famous collection mortuary texts containing spells and magic formulas to protect the dead on their next journey. Is it time to refer to Saqqara as Mummy-palooza?
"We also found a statue of Imhotep … and we hope we can find his tomb soon."
The excitement surrounding these discoveries is not just about the mummies -- Mostafa El-Waziri, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, told ABC News about finding a bronze statue of Imhotep, the high priest and royal architect believed to be responsible for the building of the Step Pyramid for the burial of Pharaoh Djoser. Most of the statues were found in the Bubastian cemetery named after the ancient goddess Bastet – the memorable cat-headed deity who was the goddess of protection and pleasure, and the bearer of good health. The complex is now called the "Cemetery of Ancient Animals" after many mummified cats and other animals were discovered there. A small statue of Bastet was found with a collection of combs, bracelets and earrings which El-Waziri held up for reporters and lovingly described.
"Look at how she is standing and the purse she is holding. This is how ancient Egyptians showed to us the beauty of Egyptian women."
This season’s archeological dig at Saqqara began with the discovery of five ancient tombs. Two months after that, the 150 bronze statues were found. Those included depictions of the ancient Egyptian deities Anubis, Amun Min, Osiris, Isis, Nefertum, Bastet, and Hathor. In addition to the statues, they found artifacts like a collection of bronze vessels used in rituals for goddess Isis. Three weeks after that, researchers uncovered two burial shafts containing 250 wooden painted coffins with mummies inside that date back to between 747 BCE and 332 BCE – it's the first time Egypt's Late Period.
“Dr. Mustafa Waziri indicated that the excavations inside one of the discovered burial wells resulted in the discovery of a sarcophagus in a good state of preservation that may contain chapters from the Book of the Dead, and that it was transferred to the restoration laboratories of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir for sterilization, hydration, study and knowledge of the texts it contains.”
Perhaps the most exciting item mentioned in the statement from the antiquities ministry (it includes photos of the statues and mummy caskets) is the papyrus scroll that, because of where it was found, is highly likely to contain parts of the Book of the Dead, which was used in ancient Egyptian furary practices from the beginning of the New Kingdom (about 1550 BCE) to around 50 BCE. While called a book – it’s also referred to as the Book of Coming Forth by Day or the Book of Emerging Forth into the Light – it’s actually a collection of texts written by priests over 1,000 years describing the spells they used to assist on the deceased’s journey through the Duat, or underworld, and into the afterlife. Since there is no single Book of the Dead, it is not known how many texts actually comprise a complete set (a common estimate puts it at over 200), so every discovery that may be one of the original or early copies is important … and this one is extra special because it is "first intact papyrus in over 100 years."
No matter which gods and goddesses are depicted in the statues found in Saqqara, nor how many mummies and who they might be, the most important Egyptian deity is the one responsible for tourism – Egypt’s most important industry and the one it hopes will lead it to a recovery from the pandemic and recession. Is there a text in the Book of the Dead on what to charge for viewings?