The Japan Times
June 15, 1999

Donkey finds Greco-Roman tombs

Classical mummies to debut in Egypt

BAWITI, Egypt (AP) Mohammed Ayadi has spent six years digging through sand and broken rock to peek into the afterlives of long-ago residents of Egypt's Western Desert.

He has inspected rows and stacks of 2,000-year-old mummified remains 5 km outside the Bahariya oasis town of Bawiti, then closed the tombs again. Now, some of the 106 Greco-Roman tombs are being excavated, and Ayadi said Sunday that tombs may begin to be opened to the public within months.

"Every chamber inside is full of mummies," Ayadi, chief antiquities inspector at the site, said as workers pulled protective plastic from tomb No. 54, revealing both elaborately encased and simply wrapped mummies.

Just how many mummies are beneath the 6-km strip of desert isn't clear - estimates run from 5,000 to 10,000-plus. Just three months ago, archaeologists discovered 105 more, when a donkey stumbled into a tomb of especially well-preserved mummies dating from the time of Alexander the Great, said Zahi Hawass, head of the team.

Hawass, speaking in Cairo on Sunday, said the tombs are "like festivals of mummies. . . . The discovery is very important because it gives you an idea about daily life."

Ayadi, blowing fine sand from a plaster shell known as the cartonnage to reveal an ornately painted male face, explains what is known about the lives of the family inside tomb No. 54.

"This is a rich family because we see decorations around the chest and jewels in the face," he said.

Designs painted on the man's chest indicate he had four sons and probably was athletic, explained Ayadi. His wife, also inside an an intricately painted cartonnage, was lying next to him in the chamber, one of seven carved inside the 8-meter by 3-meter family tomb containing 29 bodies.

Walking to a chamber on the other end of the tomb. Ayadi nods toward four mummies wrapped in plain linen, blackened over the centuries. They were family, he said, but clearly less well-to-do than the others.

Western Desert oases, including Bahariya, 350 km southwest of Cairo, flourished during Greco-Roman times. About 3 km from the newly excavated cemetery is the Temple of Alexander the Great, one of many oasis temples from the era.

Slight depressions of loose sand in the stony desert floor are telltale signs of a tomb beneath. Generally, the stone ceilings have collapsed over the years, damaging many of the mummies within.

BAHARIYA OASIS, Egypt-This Greco-Roman mummy was recently discovered in a tomb complex that the Egyptian Antiquities Department says could be open to the public within months. 105 mummies were discovered after a donkey stumbled into the 2,300-year-old catacombs in the Western Desert. REUTERS PHOTO