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The Valley of the Golden Mummies

The oasis of Bahariya has become famous in recent years for the astonishing discovery of a Roman Period necropolis now known to the world as the Valley of the Golden Mummies.

Although the news was only released to the press in 1999, the discovery took place early in 1996 when antiquities inspector Ashry Shaker announced to Dr Zahi Hawass “We have found beautiful mummies . . .” and perhaps these words will be immortalised in the history books in the same way that other famous accidental discoveries of Egyptology have been.

The 2000-year-old cemetery was found when the donkey of an antiquities guard stumbled into a hole at the side of the road about 6km south of Bawiti, near the ruined Temple of Alexander. Further investigations revealed what could be the most spectacular discovery since Howard Carter opened the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The first season of excavations in Bahariya started in 1999, by an Egyptian team under the direction of Dr Zahi Hawass, when a total of 108 mummies were found in four tombs in the first part of the necropolis to be investigated.

Dr Hawass has stated that “When the first tomb was opened, the brilliance of gold shone in the sunlight among the piles of sand”. The cemetery, which is thought to cover an area around 6km square, has been estimated by Dr Hawass to contain more than 10,000 mummies.

The Roman population of Bahariya were laid in rows in multi-chambered family tombs, left undisturbed by robbers, their burials still intact. Some of the mummies were encased in gilded or painted coffins, some wore golden masks and jewellery and were surrounded by their burial goods of wine jars, coins, pottery and amulets for use in the afterlife.

The second season’s excavations (in 2000) revealed another seven tombs and 103 mummies. As well as the beautifully decorated masks and coffins, wooden panels or stelae were found, some in the shape of a temple and decorated with depictions of Osiris, Anubis and Horus, traditional funerary deities.

In the 2001 season, a further three tombs were uncovered, containing 22 mummies, bringing the total to 233 burials. The richest burial so far was discovered in Tomb 54, in which the mummy wore a golden mask with a uraeus, the spitting cobra, a symbol of royalty, which Dr Hawass suggests, probably indicates the desire of the deceased to have a kingly transfiguration in the afterlife.

There are generally four different styles of mummies found in the necropolis. The first, for which the Valley of the Golden Mummies was named, are those with a gilded face mask and a gilded chest-covering decorated with deities.

The second type of burial is those in cartonnage coffins brightly painted with Egyptian funerary scenes, while in the third type, the bodies were placed inside an undecorated anthropoid pottery coffin. The fourth style of mummies is unique in that they were entirely covered in simple linen wrappings, more reminiscent of New Kingdom burials.

One of the most interesting discoveries from Bahariya is that reeds or sticks were placed along either side of the bodies during this period, before wrapping in linen, making the finished mummy very strong and explaining their well-preserved condition.

The tombs themselves are unusual because they contain a large number of burials. The bodies were placed in niches – sometimes a man and wife and perhaps their children too would lie side by side in death, heads towards the inside of the niche.

Each tomb has a distinctive architectural style, just as each mummy is differently decorated. Some of the tombs consist of several rooms, sometimes with ritual functions, and most have multiple burial chambers.

One of the early tombs excavated was reminiscent of the Graeco-Roman catacombs at Kom El-Shuqafa in Alexandria. Another had a large shaft with niches cut into the walls for burials. All of the tombs are undecorated.

The mummies found so far in Bahariya are already revealing a great deal of information about the lives of the citizens of the oasis during the Roman Period, increasing our knowledge of mummification techniques and religious beliefs at that time as well as providing a valuable insight into Bahariya’s Roman history.

It appears that the population lived lives affluent enough for many of its members to be able to afford extravagant burials. While six of the mummies have been taken from their tombs so that the world can see examples of what the necropolis contains, Dr Hawass believes that the rest should remain in their chosen burial place.

Archaeologists and conservators are now working towards preserving the mummies in situ and restoring the tombs with new ceilings. Their aim is to carry on excavating for one season each year – a task which could continue for another fifty years.