Archaeologists Digging At An Ancient Egyptian Burial Mound Have Made A Dazzling New Discovery

On the West Bank of Luxor – where the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes once stood – archaeologists are hard at work. From the depths of a necropolis dating back to the 16th century B.C., they retrieve a wooden coffin which had been buried beneath the earth for thousands of years. When they look inside, they’re amazed by what they find.

Since the start of 2002 the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) has been working alongside Egyptian archaeologists on a series of excavations known as the Djehuty Project. Every year, they return to the ruins of Thebes to explore Dra Abu el-Naga, one of the vast burial grounds associated with the ancient city. And each season, they learn more about the people who once lived and died within its walls.

In January 2020 the team returned to Luxor for the 19th season of this ongoing dig. And with construction work in the area looming, it was more vital than ever to excavate Dra Abu el-Naga. Thankfully, just below the entrance to an 18th dynasty tomb, the archaeologists uncovered the remarkable coffin.

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First settled in about 3200 B.C., Thebes was located on the banks of the River Nile, around 500 miles from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Over the years, it grew to become one of the most significant cities in ancient Egypt. At its peak, it was home to a population of around 80,000. It even served as the capital of the kingdom for many years.

On the eastern bank of the Nile, the city thrived, with many great temples raised in dedication to ancient pharaohs. On the western side of the river, meanwhile, a vast necropolis served as the final resting place for both royalty and commoners alike. However, the golden age of this bustling settlement eventually came to an end.

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In the 7th century B.C., Thebes was conquered by an Assyrian army, never again to return to its previous glory. Over the years, the city continued to diminish until barely a village remained. Today, the modern streets and buildings of Luxor have grown around the ruined metropolis, slowly obscuring its ancient past.

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But while little of Thebes remains on the surface, modern Luxor is still littered with remnants of the once-thriving city. One example of this is the necropolis of Dra Abu el-Naga, which stood on the west bank of the Nile. In use since at least 2000 B.C., the burial ground remained operational for the next 2,500 years.

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But unlike the nearby Valley of the Kings – which is known for its lavish royal burials – Dra Abu el-Naga provided a final resting place for a diverse range of people. On the one hand, a number of kings and queens were buried here. But the necropolis also housed high-ranking commoners and even some more everyday folk.

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According to experts, Dra Abu el-Naga was a popular burial ground thanks to its location facing the Temple of Karnak. Believed to be the biggest religious structure in the world, this complex of buildings once encompassed a staggering 200 acres. And even though its construction began in 2055 B.C., it wouldn’t be completed for another 2,000 years.

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Dedicated to the Egyptian gods Amun, Khonsu and Mut, the Temple of Karnak was an important site of worship. As such, the necropolis built in its shadow must have carried a certain amount of prestige. In fact, it wasn’t just the dead who found a home within this sprawling complex.

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Much later, in the 5th century A.D., a Coptic monastery was constructed on a hilltop above the necropolis. And for the next three centuries, the site became a center for a new type of religion. However, the walls and tombs of Dra Abu el-Naga never forgot their ancient inhabitants. Indeed, centuries later their incredible stories are still being revealed.

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In 2017, for example, Egyptian archaeologists discovered a collection of mummies and grave goods in a tomb at Dra Abu el-Naga. Dating back some 3,500 years, this crypt is thought to have belonged to Userhat, a nobleman who once acted as a judge. But despite his high status in Egyptian society, he wasn’t left to rest in peace.

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In fact, around 500 years after Userhat’s burial, his tomb was reopened so that additional bodies could be stored within. Apparently, grave-robbing was prevalent at the time, and the decision was likely taken to protect the deceased. So, by the time that modern archaeologists reopened the crypt, there were no less than eight mummies inside.

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Alongside the mummies, archaeologists also discovered a number of sarcophagi and over 1,000 funerary figurines inside the tomb. Known as ushabti, these statues were placed alongside the dead in order to assist them in the afterlife. At the time, Khaled el-Enany, Egypt’s Antiquities Minister, told the press, “This is an important discovery.”

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In fact, the tombs of Dra Abu el-Naga have revealed many fascinating secrets over the years. In 1860, for example, a French archaeologist discovered the final resting place of Neferhotep, an Egyptian official who lived in the 18th century B.C. And inside, he found an ancient papyrus describing daily life in Thebes’ royal court.

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Elsewhere, Dra Abu el-Naga boasts the tomb of Ramessesnakht, a high priest of Amun who served Rameses IV. According to historians, he presided over a time in Egypt which saw the pharaoh’s power diminish to the influence of religion. When he died, he was laid to rest alongside many others in the vast necropolis opposite the Temple of Karnak.

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In another part of the complex, a small tomb known as TT255 contains the remains of an Egyptian noble known as Roy. Apparently, he was a scribe for the 18th dynasty pharaoh Horemheb at some point in the 14th or 13th century B.C. Despite its modest dimensions, the crypt boasts rich decorations and is one of only a few that can be visited by members of the public.

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Also, in the late 1980s a German researcher discovered the tomb known today as Kampp 161. And although its inhabitants have never been identified, the structure is believed to date from either the 15th or 14th century B.C. Elsewhere, a site dubbed TT13 houses the remains of Shuroy, a 20th dynasty Egyptian who served as the Head of Brazier-bearers of Amun.

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However, perhaps the most famous structure located at Dra Abu el-Naga is the one known as ANB. In 1914 the British archaeologist Howard Carter – who would later locate the remains of the boy king Tutankhamun – identified the tomb as another royal burial place. According to him, it was constructed to house Amenhotep I, a pharaoh from the 18th dynasty.

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Inside the tomb, a gallery leads to a well which archaeologists believe served a protective purpose. As well as preventing the structure from flooding, it may also have symbolized a route into the underworld. At the bottom, excavations revealed two chambers, thought to have been built as a decoy to deter grave robbers.

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If ANB is indeed the tomb of Amenhotep I, it elevates Dra Abu el-Naga to the status of a highly prestigious burial ground. After all, the pharaoh ruled over Egypt for more than 20 years during the height of its power. However, not all experts have been in agreement with Carter’s identification.

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According to Carter, the dimensions of Tomb ANB match the description of Amenhotep I’s burial place, as described in a papyrus dating from the 20th dynasty. The structure is inscribed with both the name of the pharaoh’s mother, as well as the king himself. As such, Carter believed that the remains of both were interred there.

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However, the Czech Egyptologist Jaroslav Černý later claimed that the papyrus described another location in a nearby section of necropolis. As such, he didn’t believe that Amenhotep I was buried in Tomb ANB. Later, more archaeologists agreed that the structure likely housed the remains of the pharaoh’s mother Ahmose-Nefertari.

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But even with its most famous resident called into question, the necropolis of Dra Abu el-Naga is an impressive place. And when archaeologists from the Djehuty Project returned for the 2020 season, they must have been excited about what they might uncover. Fortunately, they didn’t have very long to wait.

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In April 2020 the CSIC announced that archaeologists at Dra Abu el-Naga had made a startling discovery. According to reports, they had been excavating a courtyard near to the tomb of Djehuty, a general who served under the female pharaoh Hatshepsut in the 15th century B.C. But in the vicinity of this burial place, they discovered a coffin belonging to someone else entirely.

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In the courtyard, archaeologists found a coffin thought to date from the 17th dynasty, which spanned 30 years between 1580 and 1550 B.C. Carved from the trunk of a tree – which experts believe was likely a sycamore – the object is almost six feet long and more than a foot wide. But despite its small size, it contained a surprising array of treasures that have shed new light on the distant past.

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Painted white on the outside and red on the inside, the coffin is relatively modest. But inside, archaeologists discovered a different story. Using an x-ray machine, they were able to examine the inhabitant of the wooden box. As it turned out, it was a girl believed to have been around 15 or 16 years old when she died.

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In direct contrast with the plain nature of the coffin, the girl’s remains were adorned with pieces of jewelry. Apparently, they may have formed part of a trousseau – a collection of valuables assembled in anticipation of married life. But sadly, these accessories ended up accompanying her to the grave instead.

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According to reports, the mummified teenager was found resting on her right-hand side in a poorly preserved state. However, the pieces of jewelry remained in excellent condition. In one ear, the girl wore two spiral-shaped earrings coated in a thin layer of metal. At the time, the ancient Egyptians were mining copper, and the adornments may have been crafted from this resource.

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As well as the earrings, the girl wore a ring on both hands. Reportedly, one is made from bone, while the second had been crafted from metal and features a bead of blue glass. But it was the artifacts laid on the mummy’s chest – a collection of necklaces held together with a ceramic clip – that were the real attraction.

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According to reports, each of the necklaces are of a different design. And the shortest, at 24 inches long, is also the most dazzling. Featuring as many as 74 different pieces, it boasts beads crafted from semi-precious stones such as carnelian, amethyst, quartz and amber, as well as blue glass.

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At the center of the piece is a hawk made from amber, believed to represent the Egyptian deity Horus. And either side of this sit two scarabs, a type of ornament carved to look like a beetle. Finally, seven amulets crafted from faience – a type of glazed ceramic – complete the impressive necklace.

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Also in the collection is a longer necklace made from faience beads in alternating light and dark shades of blue. Another ornament, meanwhile, is crafted from the same material – this time in green – and is strung alongside fragments of glass. Finally, a fourth piece consists of multiple strands held together by a single ring.

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José Manuel Galán is a CSIC researcher who acts as the coordinator of the Djehuty Project. And according to him, the collection was much grander than might have been expected. In an April 2020 statement, he explained, “The richness of the trousseau for such a young person with a relatively modest coffin is surprising.”

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So, who was this young girl? And why was she buried with such a valuable assortment of jewelry? Well, in the section of Dra Abu el-Naga where the coffin was discovered, a number of 17th dynasty rulers were laid to rest – alongside their family members. Might the extravagantly-adorned teenager have been related to a king?

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According to Galán, there have been multiple tombs discovered in the area where the girl’s coffin was discovered. In the statement, he explained, “To date, a dozen coffins have been found on the site left unprotected on the ground, which is unusual. In addition, the percentage of child and female burials is also higher than in other parts of the necropolis.”

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Interestingly, archaeologists believe that this particular coffin had once been treated with more reverence. In fact, it was originally interred in a different location, but ancient grave robbers then disturbed the area. Yet in spite of the value of what was inside, the wooden box remained unopened over the centuries.

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At the moment, the identity of the young girl with the valuable trousseau remains a mystery. But the story doesn’t end there. In April 2020 the Djehuty Project announced a number of additional finds. Near to where the coffin was unearthed, for example, archaeologists also discovered a tiny clay coffin less than nine inches long.

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Inside the coffin, archaeologists found a wooden ushabti swaddled in fabric bandages. According to an inscription scrawled on one, it once belonged to someone named Djehuty. However, this find is believed to have been buried around 1600 B.C., over a century before the general who gave his name to the nearby tomb.

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Close by, archaeologists made a number of additional discoveries, including a pair of sandals and two leather balls tied together with string. According to experts, these may also have served as grave goods for a woman buried at Dra Abu el-Naga. Today, the excavations continue, as researchers strive to explore the world of ancient Egypt, learning the stories that only the dead can tell.

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