As Archaeologists Dug Close To An Egyptian Pyramid, They Uncovered A Rare Trove Of Ancient Remains

In the shadow of the first pyramid built in ancient Egypt, a team of archaeologists are uncovering secrets from the distant past. While excavating a temple dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet, they stumble across an incredible find. Buried more than 2,500 years ago, these relics shed a fascinating light on life and death in the land of the pharaohs.

Located some 15 miles outside the modern metropolis of Cairo are the ruins of Memphis, an ancient Egyptian city on the banks of the River Nile. Once the capital of this ancient kingdom, it was home to some 100,000 inhabitants. But today, the region is known mostly for the great monuments that were erected in honor of kings and noblemen after their deaths.

The most famous of these, of course, is the Great Pyramid, the only wonder of the ancient world still standing in modern times. However, that was far from the only place where the citizens of Memphis memorialized the dead. In fact, the necropolis of this vast city stretched for many miles across the desert, encompassing countless structures and burial grounds.

One of the most significant of these is Saqqara, a section of necropolis covering some five miles between the ancient sites of Abū Sīr and Dahshūr. Believed to date back to the Early Dynastic period, which began in the 30th century B.C., this vast burial ground was first used by high-ranking officials. But by the Third Dynasty, it had become the final resting place of kings.

Today, the most significant monument in Saqqara is the Pyramid of Djoser, believed to be the oldest stone building in the entire world. Built as the tomb for the Third Dynasty’s second ruler, this structure was designed by the famous Egyptian architect Imhotep. And with its scale and grandeur, he hoped to secure the king’s place in history for good.

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Wanting to ensure that the tomb could be seen from Memphis, Imhotep designed a towering, stepped structure that reached more than 200 feet in height. Inside, the decor was designed to mimic the sumptuous interior of Djoser’s palace, affording him the same luxuries in death that he had enjoyed in life.

When Djoser died in 2575 B.C., he was laid to rest in the grand temple that Imhotep had created. And over the years, a number of kings joined him in the necropolis of Saqqara. For example, in the Fourth Dynasty the ruler Shepseskaf was buried nearby in a tomb shaped like a coffin.

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Later, a number of Fifth Dynasty kings chose Saqqara as the location for their pyramids. And in the 24th century B.C., the pharaoh Unas was the first to decorate his monument with what would become known as the Pyramid Texts. A series of ritualistic inscriptions, these were designed to provide protection in the afterlife and continued to be used for hundreds of years.

However, it was not just those of royal blood who were buried at the Saqqara necropolis. During the Old Kingdom period, which ran from the 26th to the 22nd century B.C., noblemen were also laid to rest within its walls. And although they were not as grand as the pyramids, their tombs, known as mastabas, can still be seen today.

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As time progressed, however, things began to slow down, and the inhabitants of Memphis stopped building tombs at Saqqara. For hundreds of years, a quiet descended over the necropolis. Then, in the 16th century B.C., the era of the New Kingdom began, and the region became a hub of activity once more.

Around the same time, the elite of the 18th Dynasty began constructing tombs cut into the rockface of Saqqara. Then, hundreds of years later, during the Late Period, these burial grounds were looted by persons unknown. Emptied of their valuable contents, the structures eventually came to serve another purpose.

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By that time, a sanctuary dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet had sprung up near the site of the rock-cut tombs. Initially a warrior in the form of a lioness, this deity came to be associated with more domesticated felines over the years. And by the Late Period, she was worshipped as a protector of Ra, the god of the sun.

Keen to appease the cat goddess Bastet, the ancient Egyptians founded a temple complex and repurposed the older tombs into catacombs. But instead of human remains, they buried the mummified bodies of numerous felines in tribute to the revered deity. As of today, over 100 sets of these relics have been discovered within the sanctuary, which is known as the Bubasteion.

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However, the cats of the Bubasteion were far from the only preserved creatures to inhabit the tombs of Saqqara. In fact, Djoser himself was mummified before being placed in his pyramid tomb. According to records, his prepared remains were interred in a granite vault located 90 feet underground.

For thousands of years, the ancient Egyptians used mummification as a way of preserving the bodies of the dead. Beginning in at least 2600 B.C., the practice is believed to have continued until the Roman Period, which lasted from 30 B.C. to 364 A.D. However, the most notable examples around today date from three dynasties of the New Kingdom period.

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Between the 18th and the 20th Dynasties, a period that ran from around 1570 to 1075 B.C., the ancient Egyptians created a number of mummies that have stood the test of time. Among these were Tutankhamen, the famous pharaoh whose tomb was rediscovered in 1922, as well as other important rulers and kings.

Although there were different types of mummification practised by the Egyptians, the process generally took over two months to complete. After removing all of the organs prone to immediate decay, a specially trained priest would begin to take out the subject’s brain. Apparently, this involved using a hooked instrument to pull pieces of tissue through the nostrils, leaving the face intact.

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Next, the embalmers would make a cut on the side of the corpse and remove every organ apart from the heart. In early mummification rituals, these were buried alongside the body in separate jars, although later priests would preserve them and return them to their original location. Then, the remains were doused with salt and left to dry.

After that, the mummy would be wrapped in linen, the final stage designed to preserve the body long after death. But why were the ancients so intent on following this macabre ritual? Apparently, the procedure was intended to ensure a positive experience in the afterlife for those lucky enough to be embalmed.

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According to experts, the ancient Egyptians believed that the soul was split into three parts, the ba, akh and ka. And while the first two elements were able to leave the body, journeying into the afterlife, the latter would remain tied to the deceased’s mortal remains. As such, mummification was a way of protecting the part of the spirit that remained in the physical realm.

However, because it was such a lengthy process, only the wealthy were typically able to afford mummification. And while there are examples of ordinary people opting to be buried this way, it was usually associated with noblemen and kings. But the high cost of embalming did not stop some ancient Egyptians from preserving animals in the same manner.

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You see, the mummified remains of crocodiles, baboons and birds have already been found in tombs dating from ancient Egypt. And at Saqqara, an entire cemetery was dedicated to the sacred creatures known as the Apis bulls. Believed to have been incarnations of Ptah, an Egyptian god, these animals were preserved and buried at a site near the Pyramid of Djoser.

Today, experts remain unclear as to exactly why the ancient Egyptians chose to devote a lot of effort to mummifying animals. According to some, the creatures may have been regarded as gods themselves, worshipped and revered by the community. However, others believe that the embalmed bodies were actually seen as offerings rather than deities in their own right.

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Over the years, archaeologists have studied the mummified remains found in Egyptian tombs to better understand the rituals surrounding death. And in November 2009, the country’s Antiquities Ministry announced a significant new find. At Bubasteion, researchers had discovered a fascinating cache of artifacts dating to the 26th Dynasty.

Perhaps most significantly, the Ministry explained, the archaeologists had uncovered a collection of five mummies belonging to big cats. At the time, they revealed that two of the relics were the remains of lion cubs. However, further tests were required before experts could determine the identity of the other three creatures.

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“If it’s a cheetah, a leopard, a lioness, a panther – whatever, it will be one of its kind,” the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri told The Guardian in 2019. But within days, sources were reporting that all five of the creatures were likely lions in the juvenile stage of development.

Measuring around three feet, the mummified cubs are believed to have been around eight months old when they died. But what were they doing in ancient Egypt to begin with? Surprisingly, the region around the River Nile was once home to a number of lion prides, with some of the creatures even being kept by the royal household as pets.

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By the time of the 26th Dynasty, which ran from 664 to 525 B.C., it’s believed that most of Egypt’s lions had migrated south. However, the big cat continued to play a significant role in the culture of this ancient civilization. A symbol linked with the sun and the pharaoh, its image could be found throughout the kingdom.

As ferocious and indomitable hunters, lions were highly regarded by the ancient Egyptians. In fact, the pharaohs would sometimes hunt the wild creatures in an attempt to prove their own power and skill. According to records, the 18th Dynasty ruler Amenhotep III successfully slaughtered more than 100 in just ten years – a feat that would have won him much admiration.

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“The lion played a tremendous role in the iconography of ancient Egypt,” the University of Sydney’s Conni Lord told National Geographic in 2019. “The lion was a symbol of royal authority [but] lion imagery was also used in objects of daily life, such as chairs and beds. These might have been purely decorative, but it is likely that there was a magical meaning to do with protection.”

But despite the lion’s significance in ancient Egypt, it’s rare for archaeologists to stumble upon the creature’s mummified remains. In fact, before the latest discovery was announced in 2019, only one other example had ever been found. Unearthed in 2004, this relic was also recovered from the necropolis at Saqqara.

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Interestingly, experts have struggled to work out exactly why there are so few lion remains in complexes like Saqqara. As Lord told National Geographic, “The ancient Egyptians were perfectly able to mummify a creature of this size. The Apis bull, a cult animal, was mummified using the very best techniques including removal of organs.”

In fact, American University in Cairo archaeologist Salima Ikram, who studied the mummies, explained that the only challenge would’ve been the smell. Because lions are carnivores, it seems, their organs would have given off a stronger stench compared to the herbivorous bulls. However, this does not seem like a good enough reason to explain the lack of big cats in the Saqqara tombs.

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Now, the lion was not specifically associated with any Egyptian cult or deity, which may explain why it was rarely mummified. However, others believe that such relics were not actually that unusual – they have just eluded archaeologists up until now. In fact, Ikram told National Geographic that she hoped more would be found.

“It is quite possible that as the Saqqara excavation continues more lion mummies will come to light,” Ikram explained to National Geographic. “Classical writers spoke of lions [being] mummified in Egypt and some scholars, including myself, have been looking for a cemetery of lions.” Until that time, however, the five creatures found at Bubasteion represent a significant discovery.

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“I think it’s one of the most exciting series of finds in the world of animal mummies ever,” Ikram told the Guardian in 2019. However, the lion cubs were far from the only thing discovered during the latest excavations. Alongside the preserved remains were those of a number of additional animals, including crocodiles, cobras and birds, as well as smaller felines.

Additionally, archaeologists discovered a collection of cat statues, forged from both bronze and wood, as well as a number of masks. Altogether, the cache contains hundreds of relics, all believed to date from the same era. Speaking to Al Jazaeera in 2019, Khaled El-Enany, Egypt’s Antiquities Minister, described the find as, “a [whole] museum by itself.”

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The other standout discovery, according to experts, is a huge scarab beetle carved from stone. In ancient Egypt, amulets were often created in the likeness of this creature in the belief that they would provide protection for the heart. And according to Waziri, this is one of the finest examples ever found.

“It is the biggest and [largest] scarab all over the world,” Waziri told the BBC in 2019. At the same time as the announcement, the collection of artifacts went on display at Saqqara, allowing visitors a glimpse into the distant past. Moving forwards, the Egyptian authorities hope the finds will generate interest in local archaeology ahead of a planned museum opening in 2021.

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In recent years, Egypt’s tourism industry has suffered as a result of the political unrest that has plagued the region since 2011. However, officials hope that the Grand Egyptian Museum outside Saqqara will boost visitor numbers to the previous levels. Meanwhile, archaeologists are continuing excavations at the necropolis in the hope of uncovering more about its fascinating past.

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