It’s early 2019, and archaeologists are digging 30 feet underground at the Tuna El-Gebel necropolis in Minya, Egypt. And the team’s endeavors ultimately bear fruit when they uncover a series of tombs hidden deep in the ground. Yet there’s a further surprise in store. After the archaeologists open the chambers, they discover a stunning burial ground for 50 mummies – making their find a very special one indeed.
Thousands of years ago, Egypt was not a unified country, with a boundary instead slicing the territory into two separate parts: Lower and Upper Egypt. And right near that division line, Hermopolis – which was once a major city and provincial capital – stood tall. Yet even though Hermopolis remained after the Romans conquered Egypt, the Muslim conquest in the 7th century A.D. led to its downfall.
Still, in its heyday Hermopolis was second only to Thebes in its opulence – which explains, perhaps, why archaeologists have since uncovered so much from this ancient metropolitan area. The location is notable, too, for once hosting a great necropolis, where Egyptians buried their dead and honored the deceased with monuments and tombs.
But the residents of ancient Hermopolis had an interesting way of transporting bodies from the city to the Tuna el-Gebel gravesite. Rather than carrying corpses over land, you see, the living floated the dead down the Nile instead. And thanks to this process, some bodies found eternal rest within the Beni Hasan grottos.
Yet while the residents of Hermopolis treated the dead with care, the city itself did not receive similar consideration after the Muslim invasion. Although much of the area did escape damage from the many wars that raged throughout early Egyptian history, Hermopolis’ later Muslim rulers chose to break down many of its buildings in order to reuse the materials or retrieve lime from the stones.
Yet remnants of Hermopolis remain even today; presently, a number of the city’s columns and statues stand in an open-air museum near El-Ashmunein. More recently, however, archaeologists have focused their efforts on Tuna el-Gebel, which is found to have held a wealth of artifacts and information about life and death in Hermopolis.
And, in fact, excavators only started seriously combing through Tuna el-Gebel at the start of the 20th century. The Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale led the first exploratory session, which spanned from 1902 to 1903. The Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft then followed in 1913, and the team on that dig seemingly hit the jackpot by finding several examples of Roman tombs.
In addition, the 1913 excavation revealed a slew of tomb houses with painted designs and decor – at least one of which sprawled over four floors. Six years later, however, came an even more important find. On that occasion, archaeologists at the site discovered the tomb of Petosiris, who had been a high priest of Thoth – an ancient Egyptian deity who controlled the universe and solved disputes among the gods.
Then, after uncovering the tomb of Petosiris in 1919, experts spent the next two years excavating the location, after which they also rebuilt the honorary structure. They found, too, that the building’s outer court had a very distinctive Greek style – potentially for the benefit of Alexander the Great, who was Egypt’s Grecian ruler at the time of construction.
But, naturally, work at Tuna el-Gebel wasn’t entirely finished, and so excavations continued at the location from 1931 under the guidance of Cairo University professor Sami Gabra. Gabra subsequently spent his first nine years at the site studying and digging into the area south of the tomb of Petosiris. And then, in the 1940s, he delved into a series of underground galleries, where animal burial sites were ultimately unearthed.
It’s not uncommon for an excavation to reveal animal remains within human tombs – perhaps because, as experts have deduced, beasts sometimes got into the structures but failed to escape. That said, further ancient tombs have been found to contain remains that had been cut or painted, which seemingly signifies that the creatures in question had either been sacrificed or offered up as part of rituals.
After that, excavators at Tuna el-Gebel shifted focus once again, with noted Egyptologist Alexander Badawy overseeing the uncovering of the temple of Thoth. And the place of worship was found to contain a sakia – a wheel that worked to lift water after it was set in motion by a powerful animal such as an ox or a donkey.
Researchers from Munich University and Trier University later headed to the region, too, although the teams stuck to the north and south sides of the necropolis, respectively. But neither group have since published the results of their work, which took place in the 1970s and included trips underground to study the galleries and the tomb of Petosiris.
However, perhaps one of the most intriguing finds to date at Tuna el-Gebel is the Tomb and Chapel of Isadora. The young woman buried there had lived in Hermopolis during Roman emperor Antoninus Pius’ rule of Egypt, which spanned from 138 A.D. to 161 A.D. And during her existence, legend has it that she found herself in a forbidden romance.
Isadora and a soldier from Antinopolis fell for each other, so the story goes, and the pair decided as a consequence that they wanted to marry. Yet it’s said that there was one huge problem with this plan: Isadora’s father would not give the lovers his blessing. Even so, the young couple were apparently undeterred. According to the tale, they chose instead to elope, and they started their journey to the altar by crossing the Nile.
Unfortunately, though, Isadora is claimed to have drowned in the river before she could get married. After that, her father reportedly mummified her body and built a stunning tomb around her – much of which still stands at Tuna el-Gebel today. And Lonely Planet has even claimed that visitors to Isadora’s purported final resting place can still see elements of her hair, nails and teeth.
Centuries after the Tomb and Chapel of Isadora was constructed, however, experts flocked to Tuna el-Gebel once more. From 2005 onward, excavators, land surveyors, architects and geophysicists collaborated to plot a map of the necropolis. This chart includes areas that had remained untouched by digs as well as a plan for future architectural additions to the location.
In addition, aspiring restorers can make their own mark on the area through a field school set up in 2012 through Egypt’s Minya University and the German University of Hildesheim. And excavations continue to take place at Tuna el-Gebel under the guidance of the Ministry of Antiquities – an Egyptian government group formed to protect the country’s heritage.
Naturally, then, when another team of Egyptian archaeologists explored Tuna El-Gebel’s remnants in 2019, the ministry oversaw their work, too. And together, the group – who also worked in tandem with Minya University’s Research Center for Archaeological Studies – found something incredible.
To begin with, the workers dug 30 feet into the ground at the former necropolis, after which they uncovered four separate burial chambers. And once the archaeologists entered the tombs, they found a stunning collection of mummified remains. It turned out, in fact, that 50 individuals – among them a dozen children – had been interred at the location.
What’s more, the archaeologists found that the mummies had been buried in varied methods. Some rested in stone coffins, for example, while others reposed within wooden caskets. By contrast, a number of further individuals had simply been wrapped in linen and left within the tomb. Regardless of how the bodies had been interred, though, their careful mummifications and burials suggested that they had once belonged to very important people.
In particular, it has been suggested that a number of the mummified people had held high-ranking positions during Egypt’s Ptolemaic period. Throughout this era – which stretched from 305 B.C. to 30 B.C. – a Macedonian Greek family reigned over Egypt until Rome conquered the country.
Nevertheless, Mostafa Waziri, the secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, has said that the people buried within the Tuna el-Gebel tomb could not be identified. “We have not found names written in hieroglyphics,” the Daily Mirror quoted him as saying in February 2019. At present, then, it’s not yet certain whether any of the remains once belonged to Ptolemaic officials.
In any case, the find was one worth celebrating. And the Egyptian government did just that in 2019 through a ceremony to which ambassadors from a number of countries were invited. At that time, 40 of the 50 mummies were laid out for the crowd at Tuna el-Gebel to see. Yet such an occasion may not have just been for show. It’s been suggested, for instance, that the Egyptian authorities stage such events as a reminder of the country’s many archaeological treasures.
And tourism in the country has arguably been in dire need of a boost, as visitor numbers have dropped since Egypt found itself embroiled in political turmoil in 2011. As a consequence, then, the nation continues to promote its rich history in an attempt to remind people why they should make the journey. Perhaps another recent discovery could help in that regard, too. Why? Well, that’s because it involves one of the most well-known rulers of Ancient Egypt: Tutankhamun.
Tutankhamun captured the public imagination after Howard Carter unearthed the king’s tomb in 1922. And, astonishingly, the burial chamber was found to be almost completely intact – all the more incredible considering that the Egyptian pharaoh died in 1323 B.C. Ultimately, then, the artifacts to come out of the tomb – including Tutankhamun’s famous death mask – became symbols of the country’s storied past; they also engendered an widespread interest in Egyptian history.
Yet the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb also led to a rather sinister theory. Newspapers at the time, you see, touted what became known as the “curse of the pharaohs,” which purportedly damned those who intruded upon the location to untimely deaths. And one person who helped uncover the burial site did actually meet his fate shortly thereafter.
George Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, served as the financier of the expedition to find Tutankhamun’s resting place. And after hearing the good news that Carter had found an unsealed tomb in the Valley of the Kings, Herbert duly made his way to the site mere days later. It appeared, though, that the earl couldn’t wait for the official unveiling, which was scheduled to take place on November 29, 1922.
Instead, Herbert – along with his assistant and his daughter, Lady Evelyn – snuck into the tomb on multiple occasions prior to that date. Then, five months after those visits, on April 5, 1923, the excavation’s financier died – and many credited his untimely passing to the tomb’s “curse of the pharaohs.”
That said, there was a potentially more prosaic explanation for Herbert’s death. Toxic fungi had taken root within Tutankhamun’s tomb, and it was supposed that this had actually killed the earl. After much speculation, however, a medical examiner finally revealed the truth. In reality, Herbert had actually passed away as a result of pneumonia that had progressed into a skin and tissue infection. What’s more, Herbert had so regularly suffered from lung infections that he could have succumbed to something as relatively benign as bronchitis.
Ultimately, a study also looked at the rest of the 1922 excavation crew to see whether any of those individuals had met untimely deaths after entering the tomb. And at the time of the survey, it was revealed that eight of the 58 people involved on that fateful day had died within 12 years of the tomb’s opening. Interestingly, though, Lady Evelyn survived until 1980 – regardless of those illicit visits to the tomb with her father.
But even with that theory seemingly put to bed, plenty of hypotheses about Tutankhamun’s tomb remained. Some believed, for example, that the space had secret chambers and compartments that were yet to be unveiled. Others, meanwhile, focused on the brown specks that had spread across the tomb’s walls – the markings, perhaps, of deadly fungi.
In 2018, though, researchers from the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy dispelled the rumors about the secret chambers. Their research found no evidence that such spaces existed, they said. And the year after that, the tomb’s conservators similarly shared their findings about the fungi growing on the walls.
In turn, it was revealed that the intriguing growths that had spread throughout the burial place were actually microbes. And although the organisms had turned brown and looked menacing to some, the experts explained in turn that there was no danger of them actually growing further.
In fact, the pigmented microbes hadn’t moved or spread to new locations within the tomb since Carter had first opened its door. And, the conservators continued, they’d have to stay put for the foreseeable future. Removing the splotches would damage the priceless artwork within Tutankhamun’s final resting place, you see.
Naturally, the conservation team have little desire to destroy the tomb – not least because they completed a ten-year restoration job there in 2019. And the group’s careful work helped restore Tutankhamun’s burial space to something akin to how it would have looked when his country first laid him to rest.
First, the team fortified the artwork within the tomb, including the pieces covered in brown dots. Then they set up a ventilation system to better regulate the tomb’s temperature system, as both local humidity levels and body heat from tourists had the potential to damage the former pharaoh’s mummified body.
All of that, plus the installation of barriers within the tomb, took the conservationist team nearly a decade to complete. And when the job was finally done, the Egyptian government made the announcement: Tutankhamun’s tomb had reopened, and visitors were welcome once again.
Furthermore, both the findings of the Tuna el-Gebel excavation and the reunveiling of Tutankhamun’s tomb possess the potential to bring in further tourists. Thanks to these historically significant archaeological sites and others like them, then, Egypt may yet see a further boost to its visitor numbers in the years to come.
But perhaps more importantly, the work carried out by archaeologists and conservationists helps ensure that such sites remain available to generations down the line. As Egyptologist Zahi Hawass said in January 2019, according to the Daily Mirror, “Conservation and preservation is important for the future – and for this heritage and this great civilization to live forever.”