For the first time, the secrets of ancient Egypt yielded
themselves to television cameras early Wednesday as Fox TV broadcast the
live opening of several mummies' tombs on its two-hour special, Opening
the Tombs of the Golden Mummies: Live!
|A stone sarcophagus beneath Sheikh
Cameramen filmed inside tombs that were recently discovered in this Sahara
Desert oasis and broadcast live footage as Dr. Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian
government's chief archaeologist, pried open the 3rd Century B.C. stone
coffins of a man and a small child, revealing their well-preserved, dark
gray mummified remains.
But when Hawass, accompanied by actor Bill Pullman, opened the third
sarcophagus belonging to the 5th century governor of Bahariya, the heavy
stone casket yielded only dust, a few bones, and a collection of small
statues and amulets that had been placed alongside the dead official to
assist him in the afterlife.
"The mummy deteriorated," Hawass said. He estimated that water from the
oasis had probably seeped into the subterranean tomb over the years,
dampening the burial chamber and causing the mummy to decay.
But even though the ravages of time robbed the broadcast of a dramatic
climax, Hawass called the discovery of the governor's tomb "incredible."
"This is a major discovery," he said.
|In many places, the plaster painted over the sandstone
walls has crumbled
The governor, whose name was Djed Khonso Ankh Euf, ruled over the Bahariya
oasis during the 26th Dynasty, a period that dates back to 500 years before
the birth of Christ, when Libyan overlords ruled Egypt.
His tomb, deep within an underground catacomb, was decorated with brightly
colored hieroglyphics that told the story of his life, his death and his
passage to the afterlife. His human-shaped sarcophagus was inscribed with
his name, his official titles and figures of Osiris and Isis, the ancient
Egyptian deities of the underworld. Hawass estimated that the lid alone
weighed 12 tons.
The artifacts that Hawass scooped from piles of dust inside included statues
depicting the god Horus, who accompanied the dead to the afterlife, as well
as figurines of a bird and a cobra to protect the body against grave robbers.
Hawass also found a small clay vessel containing shiny gold amulets.
Hawass said the tomb's archaeological significance lay in its vivid
depiction of the governor's times, when the kingdom's Libyan rulers
imitated the styles of Egypt's most celebrated periods. The broadcast
showed the walls of Djed Khonso's tomb painted with vivid scenes from the
sacred texts of both the Old Kingdom, some 2,000 years earlier, and the
more recent 15th Century B.C. New Kingdom.
|Only in a few places can one stand upright in the tomb
"So we have imitation of the two golden ages of Egypt," Hawass said.
The governor's tomb was an unexpected discovery during Hawass' excavations
of a vast Greco-Roman necropolis in Bahariya, believed to contain some
10,000 mummies. That makes it the largest collection of mummies ever found
and ranks it among the most extraordinary archaeological finds in Egypt's
Adding to the uniqueness of the mummy find is the fact that the tombs
uncovered so far are completely intact.
With TV cameras following him, the thick-set Hawass grunted and perspired
as he crawled through narrow underground passages to show catacombs filled
with scores of mummies dating back to 300 B.C. In one room, where Bahariya's
wealthiest residents were entombed, the mummies had casings gilded
with finely drawn faces. The dead persons depicted on the cases were shown
wearing the Greek and Roman styles of the time curly or braided hair and
white toga-like robes.
Meanwhile, Fox reporter Lisa Guerrero descended into another tomb where
Bahariya's less wealthy residents were buried. Wrapped simply in linen
like the mummies of Hollywood's horror films many of them had
deteriorated into skeletons.
|The colors of the wall paintings are still vibrant
after 2,700 years|
But the tombs also contained many artifacts that confirmed Bahariya's
reputation in ancient times as the Napa Valley of Egypt. Guerrero held up
pottery vessels that contained the remains of dates used to make date
wine, which was placed in the tombs to give the dead something tasty to
drink in the afterlife.
"This is one of the most important excavations that we have made," Hawass
said. "And this is the first time that a live TV program has showed the
opening of an intact tomb."
In the 19th century, a popular European parlor activity for British, French and Italian treasure hunters, was to bring back mummies that would then be opened before guests after
dinner, providing an evening's entertainment. Tonight's live broadcast and synched online efforts added a high-tech dimension to an enduring fascination with the mysteries of ancient Egypt.