Dr. Zahi Hawass uncovering Old Kingdom statues at Gisr el-Mudir in Saqqara, Egypt (all photos courtesy Nevine El-Aref)

In the shadows of the Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, archaeologist and controversial former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass and his team of 10 may have discovered Egypt’s oldest known mummy alongside other significant burials and funerary treasures dating back to the fifth and sixth dynasties of the Old Kingdom. The opulent tombs and accompanying artifacts were discovered several meters below ground at the Gisr el-Mudir stone enclosure during an excavation project with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.

As described by the inscriptions on his sarcophagus, the most significant mummy from the excavation project is HqA-Sps (Hekashepes), a 35-year-old man who was found wrapped in gold leaf beneath the hefty five-ton lid of his limestone tomb. The body was preserved and buried about 4,300 years ago, indicating that it “may be the oldest and most complete mummy found in Egypt to date,” according to Hawass. If the gold leaf and astoundingly heavy sarcophagus weren’t proof enough, Hawass told CNN that the body was found wearing a headband and bracelet, emphasizing that “this was a rich man.”

Once called the “Mubarak of antiquities,” Hawass was removed from his ministry post in 2011 for alleged corruption and a financial relationship with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and First Lady Suzanne.

A limestone tomb propped open by wooden logs

Among the additional uncovered tombs were the remains of a man named Fetek, the remains of a palace official named Meri who held the positions of “keeper of the secrets” and “assistant of the great leader,” and the remains of an important man named Khnumdjedef, who was found to be the “inspector of officials,” a “supervisor of the nobles,” and a priest within the pyramid complex of King Unas, the last ruler of the fifth dynasty during Egypt’s Old Kingdom. Khnumdjedef’s tomb was found with detailed decorations depicting scenes of Egyptian daily life during that time period.

Hawass and his team also discovered another tomb of an unnamed priest accompanied by a group of nine anonymous statues of people. Several of the statues show what are likely married couples, followed by a few statues of individuals and kneeling servants. While there are no attributions attached to the group of statues, the archaeological team hypothesizes that they may belong to someone named “Messi” as the name was found inscribed into a false door near the discovery site.

The excavation project also yielded Old Kingdom-era amulets, stoneware, and tools relevant in daily life, providing unique insight into art and culture during that point in history. Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziry stated that this is the largest group of such objects found in recent years.

Dr. Zahi Hawass with the nine statues found at the priest’s tomb.

The findings come as some institutions are questioning the use of the term “mummy” to identify preserved Ancient Egyptian individuals out of concerns of objectification. Several museums across the United Kingdom and the United States have switched their descriptive language to “mummified remains” to better reflect the human lives preceding the preserved bodies.

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Rhea Nayyar

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...

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