On January 17, Egypt's tourism and antiquities ministry announced that a team of archaeologists had discovered an astonishing number of decorated coffins at the Unesco World Heritage site of Saqqara, near Cairo. Displayed proudly, the 50 wooden coffins looked magnificent: rendered in human form and with bright, colourful and sharp depictions of the mortuary gods of the ancient Egyptian pantheon.
For the Egypt-obsessed, such a discovery was exactly what was needed to distract from an endlessly Covid-19-filled news cycle. Ironically, despite their deep age, the coffins heralded progress, newness – the passage of time when life for so many during this pandemic is tired and repetitive.
The discovery was not wholly unanticipated, despite the fresh excitement. Lovers of Netflix will be aware that the streaming giant presented a documentary on finds made at Saqqara in 2018. And, in a press conference announcing the discovery of almost 100 coffins – some with mummies inside – in November 2020, archaeologists had hinted that yet another discovery at Saqqara would be announced “soon”. And it was.
The 50 coffins were found in 52 burial shafts at quite significant depths (between 10m and 12m – well over the height of a two-storey house) and belong to one of the most famous periods of Egyptian history, the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC).
This latter detail is particularly interesting because although the New Kingdom boasted legendary pharaohs such as Hatshepsut and Ramesses II, splendidly interred in Thebes, some 675 km to the south, the inhabitants of these coffins had decided to spend eternity located in Saqqara, near a pyramid belonging to an Old Kingdom pharaoh named Teti – the first king of the Sixth Dynasty, who reigned Egypt some 750 years earlier (2300-2181 BC).
It was not unusual for individuals of the later dynasties to choose burial locations close to the graves of earlier kings. Egyptians considered the aura of sacred power to be cumulative, and potent. And nowhere was Pharaonic power more manifest than in Saqqara. Its most well-known monument is the famous Step pyramid of Djoser, one of the earliest pyramids in Egypt and a prototype for the Giza pyramids. Saqqara's sacred appeal was such that it boasts over 15 pyramids and numerous other burial sites, all of which imbue the landscape with layers of divine power.
Nevertheless, as so many New Kingdom elites and royals were buried in Thebes, much of our knowledge about the period comes from there. Last month’s discoveries are important for archaeologists and historians because they will provide us with new information about life and death in the New Kingdom. As the team’s director, Dr Zahi Hawass, also noted, the coffins demonstrate that Teti was perceived as important even at that later date.
It is also great news because new discoveries generate valuable PR for Egypt, whose heritage-dependent economy has been suffering under the dual challenges of recovery from political instability since 2011 and Covid-19 since 2020. Reports suggest that Egypt is losing up to $1 billion per month due to the downturn of the tourism sector – a loss it can scarcely afford.
As this trend is unlikely to change any time soon, perhaps the more significant element of this discovery is not what was found, but who found it.
Many of the recent discoveries at Saqqara were made by an all-Egyptian team, with not a westerner in sight. Such teams are common across Egypt but are often grossly undervalued by – and relative to – their white, foreign counterparts. That is a shame particularly because while Egyptian artefacts are legacies of world history, they are most intimately legacies of Egyptian history. The absence of any focus on local people is another trend that is in dire need of reversing.
It also brings another issue to mind: I cannot help but wonder whether discoveries such as these exacerbate archaeologists’ shared and rather unhealthy obsession with excavating new archaeological “things”.
Of course, by its very nature, archaeology is a thing-centred industry. But its intellectual landscape is constantly changing. We are learning to distinguish when and when not to conduct excavations, particularly if they are targetting archaeological material that's proximate to what we already have (as in this case) or if the site is located within someone's land (which it is not, in this case).
As much as archaeologists are often taught otherwise, archaeology isn’t just about digging up everything that’s there.
This kind of over-excavating is arguably symptomatic of the way archaeology is funded. Antiquities ministries within national governments such as Egypt’s are chronically underfunded. The archaeologists that do get government funding are often expected to “discover” something visually spectacular.
Western archaeologists are also expected to generate their own budgets, and therefore in turn apply to their own governments and councils, many of which also emphasise the unearthing of material goods. Public interest in and consumption of the material past ensures this wheel keeps turning.
But “things” are only props in a place’s history. The people who inhabit it are what make it – the people then and the people now. The headlines for what we find in Egypt can go far beyond the objects, if we let them. They can be about the antiquities trade, community archaeology projects or the use of archaeology in diplomacy. They can be about not just what we find, but why we find it.
Dr Rebecca Bradshaw is an archaeologist and conflict researcher