It’s only natural for people to strive to understand the history of mankind, which is why archeology is so important. To uncover and study pieces of our ancient history is one of the most essential ways we can learn about the past, and make better-informed decisions for our future.
That’s exactly what made Dr. Margaret Maitland’s discovery so intriguing! While sorting through a collection at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, she came across an unfamiliar parcel wrapped in paper. At first she didn’t think much of it, but then she noticed something strange…
Dr. Margaret Maitland is the curator of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Recently, while examining newly accepted items at the museum, she found an ordinary parcel wrapped in brown paper. It seemed to be unremarkable—that was, until she opened it…
Soon, Dr. Maitland discovered that the parcel contained an envelope. After examining the envelope, she realized that it dated back to the World War II era. When she carefully opened it, she uncovered a mysterious note from a former curator…
The note claimed that the parcel’s contents were discovered inside an ancient Egyptian tomb. That’s when Dr. Maitland realized she was holding a very special piece of history—but she’d need some help to realize what exactly she was looking at.
After assembling a group of onsite conservators, Dr. Maitland set off to figure out just what exactly this “ancient” Egyptian artifact was. She couldn’t simply take the word of the mysterious note, so her team of conservationists began analyzing the fabric inside with the utmost care.
Just unfolding the fabric took a grueling 24 hours. It was like watching history unfurl itself before their very eyes! Once opened entirely, the parcel offered “tantalizing glimpses of colorful painted details,” the conservators reported.
“None of us could have imagined the remarkable figure that would greet us when we were finally able to unroll it,” Dr. Maitland later admitted. The more her team investigated the parcel, the more they believed this find was really groundbreaking. They continued their examination…
Dr. Maitland was floored by their newly acquired artifact. “[This] shroud is a very rare object in superb condition,” she said. “[It] is executed in a highly unusual artistic style, suggestive of Roman-period Egyptian art, yet still very distinctive.”
The shroud, which was made of linen and miraculously intact, had been hand-painted with an artistic depiction of the Egyptian god of the afterlife and underworld, Osiris. It was estimated to have been completed during the Roman period.
The team then got to work in deciphering the hieroglyphs on the fabric—and they were able to identify the person who’d once been buried in it. His name was Aaemka, and he was the son of two Roman-era officials named Montsuef and Tanuat. The surprises didn’t end there!
Rolled up inside the fabric was a piece of strange brown paper. “What we found under the head were layers of the original mummy wrapping that had obviously come away when the shroud was taken off the body,” said the principal conservator, Lynn McClean.
Incredibly, the museum already had a collection, including this gold mask, from Montsuef and Tanuat on display. “It is extraordinarily rare that we have such an incredible group of objects belonging to a whole ancient Egyptian family in our collections,” Dr. Maitland said.
The tomb of Montsuef, Tanuat, and Aaemka was discovered in 1857, and archaeologists uncovered a number of incredible artifacts along with it. The golden mask was one of a few items they planned to use to help them figure out the story behind the shroud…
In addition to Montsuef’s golden mask, the National Museum of Scotland also housed this golden wreath. It was an ancient symbol of defeating death, and Montsuef had been buried with it some 2,000 years ago.
Dr. Maitland’s team believed the exhibit for Montsuef and Tanuat would make dating the newfound fabric even easier. Based on the family’s death date—around 9 B.C., they estimated the fabric to be from the first century A.D. But that wasn’t the end of their discovery…
Dr. Maitland’s team continued to research the shroud and the history of Montseuf and Tanuat’s family. What they learned changed everything! Located in modern Luxor, the tomb was prepared roughly 1,000 years before the family members’ deaths. So how were they found in it?
At the time of its creation, not long after the reign of King Tut, the Egyptian empire was experiencing its peak in terms of wealth and power. It was completely common for the highest officials to compete with one another to have the most exquisite and lavish crypts.
There was a reason why these high officials wanted to prepare the most lavish crypts; they believed that they would carry their wealth on Earth into the afterlife. So, the more jewelry and art they were buried with, the better!
Somewhat surprisingly, before the tomb belonged to Montsuef, it was the crypt of the chief of police, Medjay, and his wife. When the archaeologists originally unearthed the tomb, they discovered this beautiful statue of the couple.
“People would go and present offerings to a statue of their deceased relatives so that they would have the food and drink they needed to be able to live forever,” Dr. Maitland said while explaining the way in which these tombs were decorated.
While most tombs would have been reused—much how Montsuef and his family took over the one belonging to Medjay and his wife—it’s incredible that it still remained untouched for two millennia. If it wasn’t for Dr. Maitland’s curiosity, the parcel could’ve gone unexplored for who knows how long!
If it wasn’t for Dr. Maitland’s curiosity, the parcel could’ve gone unexplored for who knows how long— and she’s not the only curious one. Egypt has one of the oldest and most fascinating cultures on the planet, after all.
Since the early 1800s, archaeologists and Egyptologists have painstakingly searched for, and actually uncovered, thousands of ancient relics and secrets hidden in the deserts of Egypt.
Mis-adventures / Flickr
But while they sometimes stumble into rare historical jewels just below the surface, other times, researchers aren’t so lucky. The care and cunning of the ancient people who built these tombs makes the archaeologist’s job a delicate scavenger hunt.
Middle East Monitor
In recent years, the Ministry of Antiquities has attempted to lead new excavations all over Egypt, in part to make new discoveries, but also to help repair the damage tomb raiders and looters have caused over time.
Middle East Eye
See, since the Egyptian revolution in 2011, many areas, like the Great Pyramids, have been completely unguarded. Consequently, grave robbers, some with major connections to the criminal world, others just common thieves, plundered the area and made away with artifacts.
Illicit Cultural Property
When some tomb shafts proved too small for adults, they used kids to access them, causing injury and even accidental death. If the loss of life weren’t bad enough, because of the thefts, a large portion of tombs have suffered damage beyond repair.
One of the newly excavated sites was the necropolis of Saqqara, an ancient burial ground. In 2018, the groundbreaking treasures the Ministry of Antiquities brought to light were highly preserved and unique. One finding, in particular, was dubbed “the most beautiful tomb discovered this year.”
What makes this site so special? Looters damaged and stole many of the valuable ancient relics, but inside a wooden coffin lay hidden a mask of gold-plated silver. Only a few of its kind exist, so excavators geared up for the other gems waiting to be found within Saqqara’s depths.
Finding the mask lit a fire in the bellies of archaeologists. In fact, it was the first mission in the area since 1900, so the opportunity and probability that more significant treasures were on the horizon was pretty high.
Not long after the mummy was found, archaeologists came across some more ancient artifacts. Nestled inside a stone ridge was a series of seven tombs; one crypt held mummified cats and rare scarab beetles.
Ancient Egyptians mummified human bodies to preserve them for the afterlife, but animals were mummified as part of religious offerings. After collecting the pristinely preserved creatures, the researchers were elated to discover the entrance to an untouched tomb believed to hold human remains.
Left completely intact and out of sight for 4,400 years, the tomb was the elaborately decorated final resting place of a high priest — Wahtye. As the high ranking member of the priesthood, he was appointed by royalty, King Neferirkare Kakai, back in the Fifth Dynasty.
At 33 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 10 feet high, the tomb held many clues about the man laid to rest in its walls. Elaborate carvings, paintings, and hieroglyphics all told stories about the life of Wahyte. In fact, the high priest was a bit of a “mummy’s boy”…
Archaeologists were hard pressed to find a spot in the tomb where Wahyte wasn’t paying tribute to his beloved mama, Merit Meen. Drawings, paintings, and even statues of his mother covered the walls.
Inscriptions also revealed Wahyte had a wife, Weret Ptah, though there was much less fanfare for her. Thousands of years after artists originally painted the limestone walls, new people finally saw the elaborate scenes depicting Egyptians hunting, sailing, and manufacturing.
Ministry of Antiquities-Arab Republic of Egypt /Twitter
The Saqqara site exposed so many details of daily life for an Ancient Egyptian person. Drawings of musical performances, and the making of pottery and wine, as well as sailing and furniture making, make Ancient Egypt seem akin to the social life of a present-day young, cultured city dweller.
As they examined the inside of the tomb, they learned more about Wahtye. Of course unraveling the story of his life, family, and place in the fifth dynasty was fascinating, but all the while the team was on the hunt to discover the crown jewel — Wahtye’s hidden final resting place.
On December 13th 2018, the excavation team had their grand stroke of luck. They cleared away the last layer of debris, and low and behold, there were five shafts. So they began the slow careful process of finding a way inside…
To their surprise, the first shaft was unsealed. Which made sense, since when they pried it open, it was absolutely empty. Nevertheless, the four other shafts had potential to hold findings that the modern world hadn’t yet seen.
“I can imagine that all of the objects can be found in this area,” said the general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Mostafa Waziri. He indicated the remaining shafts held the biggest answers. “This shaft should lead to a coffin or a sarcophagus of the owner of the tomb.”
Officials said that in the coming months, as the excavation continued, they expected to unearth even more in the preserved chambers. Shoveling by hand, sifting through stone and sand, the archaeologists waited to reveal more glimpses into the past.