Chance always accompanies archaeologists as they search for the treasures of ancient Egypt. Rarely, however, does chance end up being the protagonist of the discovery itself. Beneath the sands of the royal necropolis of Saqqara, in an arid wasteland of the complex, veteran Zahi Hawass has stumbled upon the games that served the deceased to gamble and win a passage to the placid afterlife. “We have discovered two games that were placed in the tomb so that the owners of the burial would use them and could safely cross to the Hereafter,” acknowledges the Press. Hawass, the former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities.
It is a winter morning and the septuagenarian, capable of stirring up conflicting passions, leads a battalion of workers and archaeologists in the magical wasteland of Saqqara, the royal cemetery located about 50 kilometers from the current urban agglomeration of Cairo. “The first of the games is called Senet, which in hieroglyph means crossing. It is made up of 30 squares. Players must start in square number five and must move the pieces in order to reach square number 27, which represents the water. Whoever gets there wins, “says Hawass, who compares the pastime with modern chess.
The second of the games found in one of the cavities unearthed by his team is “Twenty.” “It is another diversion that allowed the deceased to safely walk the path to the afterlife”, emphasizes the incombustible archaeologist. “Twenty” emerged from the sands with the name of its former owner, whom it accompanied in the existence that was to begin after his death. Luck has also smiled on the Egyptian expedition that resurrected two games from ancient Egypt. The team has discovered the funerary temple of Queen Nearit, the wife of the Teti monarch, the first pharaoh of the 6th dynasty who ruled Egypt between 2323 and 2150 BC. “A decade ago I found the pyramid of the queen but then I did not know the identity of the deceased. Inside the temple, we have located an obelisk with the name of the queen.
It is the first time we have heard of her. It is a new one. queen to add to the history of Egypt “, confesses. The stone structure that was once the consort’s pyramid, worn down by ailments of millennia, presides over the excavation. In its vicinity, armies of workers excavate the entrails of the enclosure. “Around this monument, we have signed other very important finds that can rewrite the history of this area, especially during the 18th and 19th dynasties of the New Kingdom (1570-1069 BC), during which King Teti was the object of worship and the citizens they decided to bury themselves in its vicinity “, Hawass details.
On the southeast side of the temple, archaeologists have located three warehouses built of adobe and whose purpose was to store supplies, offerings, and tools necessary in the daily life of the place of worship. The excavation has also yielded a network of underground burials. “We have found a hundred coffins. In just one of the cavities, we located 54 coffins, all belonging to the New Kingdom, around 3000 BC. It is the first time that a find of that period has been made in Saqqara”, Hawass happily emphasizes. Stored in wells more than ten meters underground, the sarcophagi have stood the test of time with dignity.
They are in good condition and exhibit scenes of the deities to which the prayers of the time were directed along with passages from the Book of the Dead that helped the deceased to cross to the Hereafter. “We have unearthed a papyrus five meters long, with the Book of the Dead, and objects that give us very valuable information about the people who lived at that time, three thousand years ago, like an ax that would belong to a soldier and that it would be a weapon of war, funerary masks and a model of a ship, “says Hawass.
In recent years Saqqara has revealed itself as a place full of exceptional finds. It was the main funerary complex of Memphis, the first capital of Egypt, and its confines – through which the stepped pyramid of Djoser stands out – served for the eternal rest of kings, nobles, high officials, and mummified animals. They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1970. Since October a succession of discoveries, with dozens of colorful coffins, have claimed the place of Saqqara in the homeland archeology. “We have thousands of pieces of pottery. We are rebuilding entire vessels,” says Nermin Aba Yazid, who a few meters from the main excavation, is busy with the task of putting the puzzle together. In the attached tent, meanwhile, Dr. Afat Wahba listens to the skeletal remains that the mission has recovered.
Human remains can tell us a lot about the ancient Egyptians: their daily lives; the foods they ate; their professions and their physical activities,” Wahba argues. Sheltered in the Jamia, Wahba studies two skeletons, that of a minor with his mother who was buried in the same coffin, and a small sarcophagus that served for the eternal rest of a six-month-old baby. “Although he was very small, they embalmed him, wrapped him with bandages, and placed him in a wooden coffin. They buried him with a toy in his hands so that he might use it in his afterlife,” the anthropologist slides.
Weeks of work in their entrails have provided Hawass and his subordinates – under the patronage of the Library of Alexandria – an enormous quantity of material, from “ushabtis” – funerary figures placed in the tombs of Ancient Egypt with the belief that their spirits they would work for the deceased in the afterlife – even statues of the funerary god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, the chief of Saqqara. “And we continue digging. I estimate that it will take ten more years to discover the potential. We have come across a shaft 15 meters deep in which there are forty tons of stone sarcophagi and we are working at the same time in a hollow of 26 meters of antiquity that could be intact. It is another sign that you never know the secrets that still hide the sands of Egypt “, warns Hawass.