On the fringes of the Egyptian desert, a team of archaeologists uncover a fascinating find buried deep beneath the sands. That turns out to be an ancient town, thought to have been lost to the world for 7,000 years. But now that the settlement has been rediscovered, what fresh secrets are waiting to be revealed about one of the planet’s oldest civilizations?
Ever since archaeologists first started exploring the landmarks of ancient Egypt back in the 18th century, the region has revealed a wealth of ancient treasures to curious eyes, from the awe-inspiring Great Pyramid of Giza to the allegedly cursed tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun. Furthermore, a series of excavations in the country has helped us to learn more about the people who lived here so many thousands of years ago.
And although recent political troubles have dented Egypt’s popularity as a tourist destination, millions of visitors still flock to cities such as Giza every year to marvel at relics from the distant past. Meanwhile, in the south of the country, archaeologists from its Ministry of Antiquities have been making further incredible discoveries.
Then, on November 24, 2016, the ministry made a startling announcement. Apparently, a team had been excavating near the small town of El-Balyana, close to the river Nile. There, they had stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient city, thought to date back as far as 5316 BC.
At the site, archaeologists managed to uncover iron tools, shards of pottery and even the remains of ancient huts. From these finds, they were able to determine that they were looking at a residential location. Perhaps most significantly, however, was the discovery of a cemetery full of elaborate graves.
In fact, as many as 15 graves have been discovered at the site. And these are not just any tombs: incredibly for their age, they are vast in size. Indeed, they’re even bigger than some of the royal graves located at the nearby ancient city of Abydos. This suggests that they might once have belonged to individuals of great importance.
“The size of the graves discovered in the cemetery is larger in some instances than royal graves in Abydos dating back to the first dynasty,” the ministry said in a statement, “which proves the importance of the people buried there and their high social standing during this early era of ancient Egyptian history.”
And it isn’t just the size of the graves that has gotten archaeologists talking. That’s because these structures are known as mastabas, or rectangular tombs constructed with sloping walls and flat roofs. And Yasser Mahmoud Hussein, the lead researcher of the dig, has claimed that these mastabas are the oldest ever found.
However, discoveries this interesting are actually in keeping with the area. In fact, the nearby site of Abydos has long been regarded as among the most significant archaeological locations in the whole country. Thought to be one of Ancient Egypt’s oldest cities, Abydos was first inhabited in the Predynastic era, from around 6000 BC.
It’s believed that Abydos became the capital of ancient Egypt towards the tail-end of the Predynastic era. And over the years, many grand structures were built across the city. These included the Temple of Seti, a vast structure dedicated to the memory of the 19th Dynasty pharaoh Seti I.
However, archaeologists believe that the newly discovered settlement is far older than the Temple of Seti itself. In fact, evidence suggests that the uncovered graves date to as far back as the First Dynasty of Egypt, when Egypt’s earliest pharaohs ruled the land. If so, that would make the mastabas about the same age as Abydos. The city in which the tombs were built, however, is likely much older still.
Although experts disagree on when exactly the First Dynasty began, most have put it somewhere between the 34th and 30th centuries BC. Around this time, a leader called Narmer began the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, a task probably carried on by his son Hor-Aha. Then after having created a new kingdom, Narmer launched a dynasty that would last some 200 years.
And during the First Dynasty, ten different individuals would hold the throne of Egypt – including some of the country’s first female rulers, temporarily leading the nation as regents. When the pharaohs died, moreover, they were buried in elaborate tombs. They were often accompanied by human sacrifices, too, but thankfully this practice appeared to have been phased out after the death of Qa’a, the last ruler of the First Dynasty.
As the new dynasty began, though, Abydos remained the capital of Ancient Egypt. In fact, things stayed that way until the time of the Fourth Dynasty. Later, the city became a center of worship for the cult of Osiris and Iris and a significant place of pilgrimage in the ancient world.
But was the city recently discovered near the Temple of Seti I once part of Abydos, or something else entirely? At the moment, experts remain unclear. However, the potential implications of the discovery have piqued interests around the world. That’s because it’s actually possible that an even older Egyptian capital, one predating Abydos, has been unearthed.
“About a mile behind where this material is said to be, we have the necropolis with royal tombs going from before history to the period where we start getting royal names, we start getting identifiable kings,” the University of Liverpool’s Chris Eyre told the BBC in 2016. “So, this appears to be the town, the capital at the very beginning of Egyptian history.”
Some experts have a different theory, however: the new city may once have been home to those responsible for building the royal tombs in Abydos. In fact, one writer has proposed that the vast mastabas were built by officials who did not want their eternal resting places to pale in comparison to those they built for royals in the nearby capital.
Furthermore, archaeologists have suggested that the tools and pottery fragments discovered could be relics from the same elaborate construction process. However, investigation is still very much ongoing, and experts are excited about what revelations might still be to come.
And for those concerned about Egypt’s future, the discovery couldn’t have come at a better time. For a country heavily dependent on revenue from tourism, the impact of terrorism and political unrest has hit hard. In fact, the first three months of 2016 saw just 1.2 million tourists visit Egypt – down by nearly half on the equivalent figure for 2015.
Will this latest find help to boost Egypt’s tourism at a time when the country arguably needs it the most? Only time will tell. However, there can be no doubt that Hussein and his team have stumbled across yet another fascinating slice of ancient Egypt hidden beneath the shifting sands.