SAQQARA, Egypt – Illuminated only by torches and camera lights, Egyptian laborers used crowbars and picks Wednesday to lift the lid off a 2,600-year-old limestone sarcophagus, exposing — for the first time since it was sealed in antiquity — a perfectly preserved mummy.
The mummy, wrapped in dark-stained canvas, is part of Egypt's latest archaeological discovery of a burial chamber 36 feet below ground at the ancient necropolis of Saqqara. The find, made three weeks ago, was publicly announced Monday and shown to reporters for the first time Wednesday.
Egypt's archaeology chief Zahi Hawass has dubbed it a "storeroom for mummies," because it houses eight wooden and limestone sarcophagi as well as at least two dozen mummies.
Hawass led a group of international media Wednesday into the burial chamber, supervising as one person at a time was lowered into the shaft, holding on to a rope-pulled winch turned by workers above ground.
"It's moments like these, seeing something for the first time, that hold all the passion of archaeology," Hawass said after the mummy was unveiled.
The find dates back to 640 B.C., or the 26th Dynasty — Egypt's last independent kingdom before a succession of foreign conquerors.
Hawass said the discovery was important because it shows much of the sprawling site at Saqqara, about 12 miles south of Cairo, has yet to be unearthed. Rulers of ancient Memphis, the capital of Egypt's Old Kingdom, were buried at Saqqara.
Inside the chamber, 22 mummies lay covered only by sand in four niches dug into the chamber's walls. Most were badly decomposed, showing only skulls and parts of skeletons, with decayed mummy wrappings. The sarcophagi were placed throughout the room.
A dog's mummy — possibly of a pet — was also found along with mummies of children, prompting speculation the chamber holds the remains of a large family, with the richer, more prominent members, buried in the sarcophagi.
"Only the rich could afford to have sarcophagi made of limestone from Thebes," said Hawass. Thebes is an ancient city on the west bank of the Nile, hundreds of miles to the south in what is today's Luxor. "The owner of the dog could have asked that his faithful companion be mummified and accompany him into the afterlife."
Hawass said he believes the mummy in the limestone sarcophagus belonged to a nobleman, but so far the mummies' identities remain a mystery.
The storeroom was found next to an even older cemetery dating to the 4,300-year-old 6th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, a few hundred yards (meters) away from Saqqara's two most prominent pyramids — the famous Step Pyramid of King Djoser and that of Unas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty.
The find reflected the fact that the area was used for burials in both the Old Kingdom and 2,000 years later when these mummies were buried.
The lid of the limestone sarcophagus opened Wednesday had been broken in antiquity — likely by workers carrying it down into the chamber — and resealed with mortar, Hawass said, tracing the crack. Hawass added that he plans to scan the mummy soon, a complicated process that requires the mummy to be removed from the tomb. He believes there could be gold amulets inside meant to "help the deceased in the afterlife," a common practice in pharaonic times.
Also Wednesday, Hawass opened another sarcophagus in the storeroom, a wooden coffin with an inscription in hieroglyphics on the lid that exposed another mummy, but stopped short of opening a third, also a wooden one, because of its poor condition. All eight sarcophagi in the storeroom are believed to hold mummies, said Abdel Hakim Karar, chief archaeologist of Saqqara but so far only three were opened. The first sarcophagi was opened Monday.
Excavations at Saqqara have been going on for 150 years, uncovering a necropolis of pyramids and tombs dating mostly from the Old Kingdom but also tombs from as recently as the Roman era.
In November, Hawass announced the discovery of a 4,300 year-old pyramid at Saqqara — the 118th in Egypt, and the 12th to be found at this site. In December, two new tombs were found near the current mummies' discovery.
According to Hawass, only 30 percent of Egypt's monuments have been uncovered, with the rest still under the sand.