It’s December 2020. A team of archeologists are hard at work in a dusty cemetery outside Cairo, Egypt. For years, they have been striving to expose the secrets of this ancient monument. But now they’ve hit the jackpot! The team has unearthed a cache of eerie treasures that have been buried for thousands of years. And the experts are confident that these artifacts will rewrite history…
The team – led by Egyptologist Zahi Hawass since 2010 – have been excavating a site within Saqqara. This ancient graveyard sprawls across the western bank of the River Nile. Over the years, archeologists have discovered many fascinating relics beneath Saqqara. But what Hawass and his team have found could trump them all.
And that’s really saying something. Impressive discoveries in Saqqara include a gigantic animal burial ground and a collection of dozens of 2,000-year-old mummies. These two finds could be connected as well. Because the archaeologists who found the roughly eight million animal remains believed the creatures may have been there to deliver their master’s prayers beyond the grave.
But after more than a decade of work, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiques announced that the latest excavations had been a success. Hawass and his team, in the dark recesses under the necropolis, had unearthed many lost secrets. But there was no fabled treasure of unparalleled worth. Instead, the eerie objects concerned the dead – and told a thrilling truth about the world of ancient Egypt.
Saqqara – located some 20 miles outside of Cairo – was also once a burial ground for Memphis. No, not the one in Tennessee. This Memphis was an ancient city founded around 2925 B.C. According to legend, it served as the seat of the pharaoh Menes. He united the Upper and Lower kingdoms of the country and kickstarted an era known as the First Dynasty.
The oldest tombs at Saqqara are actually believed to date back to this period. But at first, the necropolis was not the resting place of kings. The royal rulers of Egypt were originally buried at Abydos – some 330 miles to the south. The necropolis at Memphis, meanwhile, was reserved for high-ranking officials.
Though all that would change as Saqqara gradually became the burial place of choice for Egyptian royalty. According to some experts, this practice may have begun as early as the 29th century B.C. when the Second Dynasty king Hotepsekhemwy was buried. Although the location of his tomb is still unknown, many believe that it is situated beneath the Memphis necropolis.
It was during the reign of the Third Dynasty king Djoser, though, that Saqqara came into its own as a royal burial ground. With the help of his personal architect Imhotep, the ruler designed a sprawling memorial complex inside the necropolis with a 200-foot pyramid as its centerpiece.
Today, the monument known as the Pyramid of Djoser is considered to be the oldest large-scale cut-stone building on Earth. It also may have inspired many similar structures – including the famous pyramids at Giza some 10 miles to the north. But this Third Dynasty king was far from the only royal to leave his mark on Saqqara.
Later during the Fourth Dynasty, King Shepseskaf had a tomb in the shape of a coffin – known as Mastabat al-Fir’aun – built within the necropolis. Also, many Fifth Dynasty rulers raised pyramids in their memory at Saqqara. And it was the last of this latter line – Unas – who began a tradition that would continue for more than 1,000 years.
It’s believed that Unas came to power in around 2465 B.C. He was the first Egyptian pharaoh to have the inside of his monument at Saqqara inscribed with symbolic images and words, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Over time, these would become known as the Pyramid Texts. And this funerary practice is thought to have continued into the New Kingdom era, which ended in the 11th century B.C.
But it wasn’t just kings who were buried within the complex at Saqqara. Like those laid to rest here during the First Dynasty, many Egyptian nobles also had less elaborate tombs – or mastabas – within the necropolis. Decorated with carvings depicting everyday life, these structures were typically made from mud bricks.
The political landscape of Egypt then shifted as the 11th Dynasty came to an end, and it ushered in an era known today as the Middle Kingdom. During this period, the necropolis at Saqqara was mostly neglected in favor of other burial grounds. But then, hundreds of years later, it came back into fashion.
With the 18th Dynasty and the rise of the New Kingdom, Memphis grew to become an influential city once more. Soon, high-ranking officials would start returning and building their tombs within the necropolis of Saqqara. During this period, many important figures were buried here. These included the artist Thutmose and Tutankhamun’s wet nurse Maia.
After the New Kingdom’s demise, Memphis began to lose its status as other cities stepped up to take its place. And over time, Saqqara became less of a burial ground and more a place of pilgrimage for cults operating out of the necropolis. That said, some monuments were still constructed here – such as one memorializing the great thinkers of the Ptolemaic period.
Eventually, though, the dynasties of Egypt fell and Saqqara was abandoned to the unforgiving march of time. For more than 1,000 years, its great pyramids and tombs kept their secrets closely guarded. Then, in the 19th century, rogue archeologists began looting the necropolis and sending what they found to museums across the globe.
In the midst of this chaos, fortunately, some attempted to preserve the history of Saqqara. In 1842, for example, the Prussian archeologist Karl Richard Lepsius visited the necropolis – cataloging the tombs even as others worked to dismantle them. A few years later, the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette then located the burial place of several sacred bulls.
Shockingly, though, it wasn’t until the 1970s that an official program of excavation began at Saqqara. Led by London’s Egypt Exploration Society and archeologist Geoffrey Martin, these digs finally began to uncover the fascinating truth about the ancient necropolis. And this work has been going on ever since in one form or another.
Over the years, many prominent experts have tried their hand at excavating the secrets of Saqqara. But perhaps none have been more renowned than Zahi Hawass – the man behind the recent revelations. Born near the city of Damietta in northern Egypt, this popular archeologist has been credited with reclaiming the discipline for his native land.
After initially studying to become a lawyer, Hawass switched to Greek and Roman archeology – graduating from Alexandria University in 1967. But it was while employed by the Department of Antiquities – now the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) – that he developed a real passion for the past.
Hawass eventually went on to study at Pennsylvania University in the U.S., where he obtained a Ph.D. in Egyptology. But after graduating in 1987 he returned to his home country. There, he took a position as the general director of antiquities for many important archeological sites. Among these, significantly, was the necropolis at Saqqara.
In 1990 Hawass achieved his first breakthrough when he discovered tombs belonging to the workers who built the pyramids at Giza. Using this discovery as a springboard, Hawass spoke out against those who believed outlandish theories about their construction. And soon, he had begun to develop an international reputation.
Hawass then made another huge discovery in the late 1990s. This time, it was the Valley of the Golden Mummies – a vast collection of preserved human remains unearthed from Egypt’s Bahariya Oasis. Following these astonishing finds, the archeologist was appointed Secretary General of the SCA in 2002.
Hawass would subsequently go on to oversee many archeological projects and digs. One of the most fascinating of these began in 2010 when his team started excavating a particular site within Saqqara. According to CBS News, it was located adjacent to the pyramid of Teti – a king from Egypt’s Sixth Dynasty.
Before long, the archeologists unearthed a second monument in the same part of the necropolis. Hawass explained to the news website in January 2021, “… We discovered a pyramid of a queen next to the pyramid of King Teti, but we didn’t find a name inside the pyramid to tell us who the pyramid belonged to.”
For the next decade, the team continued searching in and around this new pyramid – hoping to determine the identity of its mysterious owner. But that wasn’t all. The dig was also part of a wider program of excavations that would see an impressive cache of ancient relics unearthed from the necropolis.
What did Hawass and his team find, then? Well, in January 2021 they revealed their discoveries following the latest round of digs at Saqqara. One month earlier, researchers had apparently located a mortuary temple within the newly discovered pyramid. And thanks to two separate inscriptions, they had finally been able to establish just who was buried there.
CBS News notes that the team found one inscription etched into the temple wall and another carved into an obelisk that had fallen near the tomb. Written on both was the name of Queen Neit, who is believed to have been King Teti’s wife. Before this discovery, though, little was known about this enigmatic woman.
“I’d never heard of this queen before,” Hawass told CBS News. “Therefore, we add an important piece to Egyptian history – about this queen.” Though the temple of Neit – or Nearit – was not the only structure that Hawass’ team discovered. Nearby, they also unearthed the remains of three warehouses built from mud bricks.
CBS notes that these structures would once have housed offerings for Teti and Neit – the latter of whom is believed to have died around 4,200 years ago. Yet these weren’t the only ancient secrets that Hawass and his team uncovered. Close to the pyramid site, they also discovered more than 50 burial shafts stretching beneath the necropolis.
Though what kinds of shafts were they – and did they contain treasures within? Well, CBS reports that they ranged between 30 and 40 feet in size, and they held dozens of coffins or sarcophagi crafted from wood. Experts have estimated that they are around 3,000 years old – dating from the New Kingdom era. And Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiques is convinced that these artifacts are truly one of a kind.
According to a statement from Hawass’ team, this is the first time that coffins of such an age have been found at Saqqara. So, who did they belong to? In a January 2021 article for Live Science, archeology writer Owen Jarus speculated that the sarcophagi could have housed devotees of a cult that worshiped Teti.
Jarus writes that this cult sprang up in Egypt in the aftermath of Teti’s death. And it apparently persisted for up to 1,000 years! At the time, it would have been considered an honor to be buried close to the deceased king – hence the popularity of the burial shafts among his devotees.
But that’s not all. There were, in fact, still many more treasures waiting to be unearthed! In January 2021 the team located another tunnel beneath the site. Speaking to CBS News, Hawass said, “Inside the shaft we found a large limestone sarcophagus. This is the first time we’ve discovered a limestone sarcophagus inside the shafts. We found another one that we’re going to open a week from now.”
Meanwhile, excavations have revealed several fascinating artifacts dating from various points throughout the long history of Saqqara. Among these are a collection of wooden masks that experts believe were once used in funerary rites. And two ancient board games have even been discovered at the site!
According to CBS News, one of these was a game known as Twenty, which was found still marked with the name of its one-time owner. Another called Senet was also discovered within the burial shafts. Today, experts believe that its gameplay was similar to chess – albeit with more sinister connections to the afterlife.
The dog-headed god Anubis – a symbol of the underworld to the ancient Egyptians – made an appearance during the excavations, too. And as well as a shrine dedicated to his worship, experts also unearthed several statues carved in his likeness. Yet one of the creepiest finds of all was a huge papyrus some 13 feet long and 3 feet wide.
The papyrus was inscribed with Chapter 17 from the ancient manuscript known as the Book of the Dead. This was a later version of the Pyramid Texts that emerged in Saqqara during the Fifth Dynasty, and it was considered a magical artifact. With the spells contained in the book, ancient Egyptians believed that the deceased would experience a smooth journey into the afterlife.
Archeologists were even able to identify the owner of the papyrus! He was apparently a man known as Pwkhaef. His name was inscribed on the manuscript itself and a nearby sarcophagus. Moreover, Hawass claimed that it was the biggest document of its kind ever recovered from an Egyptian burial ground.
So, what does such a substantial discovery mean for Saqqara? We’ll let the Ministry of Tourism and Antiques answer that question in a statement translated by CNN. It read, “[These finds] will rewrite the history of this region, especially during the 18th and 19th dynasties of the New Kingdom, during which King Teti was worshiped, and the citizens at that time were buried around his pyramid.” Yep, it turns out that Egyptologists worldwide have every reason to be excited!