Czech archaeologists discover tomb of ancient Egyptian dignitary
In spring of this year, Czech archaeologists unearthed an incredible find – the previously undiscovered tomb of an ancient Egyptian dignitary in Abusir, Egypt. The discovery, announced on Friday on the Czech Institute of Egyptology’s Facebook page, allowed the team to garner important information about the turbulent period surrounding the beginning of Persian rule in Egypt.
The shaft tomb, discovered by a team from the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University, dates back to the early 5th century BC, and belonged to an ancient Egyptian dignitary named Vahibre-meri-Neit. Professor Miroslav Bárta, who headed the expedition to Abusir, says that the man’s title means that he would have commanded foreign mercenaries serving in the Egyptian army during the first period of globalization of the ancient world.
“The name of the person himself indicates that he probably belonged to a powerful local family, and one title preserved and found so far, ‘Overseer of the Foreign Mercenaries’, also suggests that he was quite an important military figure.”
Vahibre-meri-Neit’s tomb holds the largest mummification deposit found by archaeologists so far. He probably died very unexpectedly, as his tomb was not yet finished. No human remains were found in the burial chamber but there was a double sarcophagus, consisting of a three-metre-high outer sarcophagus made of two massive blocks of white limestone, and a second inner sarcophagus, made of basalt.
However, both sarcophagi had been damaged by ancient robbers, probably around the 4th - 5th century AD, as evidenced by two forgotten Coptic vessels that were found in the main shaft of the tomb. The ancient thieves carried away the mummified body of the deceased along with everything he was carrying and wearing. In the otherwise empty sarcophagus, only an uninscribed heart scarab and a small headrest-shaped amulet were found. However, other interesting objects were found in the tomb.
“We came across two Canopic jars, a very important and quite big limestone flake called Ostracon on which one specific chapter from The Book of the Dead was inscribed in black ink. We found several hundred veshebts – servants’ statues to perform tasks for the deceased in the afterlife.”
And the tomb itself has a very unusual structure, says Bárta.
“As far as its structure is concerned it is quite unique – no parallels have been found so far.”
At a depth of approximately 6 meters below ground level, it is divided into several parts, separated from each other by "bridges" formed of the original bedrock. A smaller burial shaft, oriented east-west and measuring approximately 6.5 x 3.3 meters, was excavated into the bedrock roughly in the middle of the main shaft.
The unusual arrangement of the tomb and its austere but fully functional burial equipment thus provide valuable information about how the ancient Egyptians adapted to difficult circumstances and times of crisis, when the original character of their civilization was beginning to disappear. Miroslav Bárta says that the Ancient Egyptian civilization was in a period of instability at the time the tomb was built.
“Egypt at this particular period was in a very difficult situation, losing against more developed and more successful civilizations, be it the Greeks or the Persians. What people normally do under such pressure is that they dig deep into their past to find ways to readjust, to find the lost path to their glory.”
One way the ancient Egyptian rulers of the period thought they could regain their former pre-eminence was by building shaft tombs that imitated the tombs of rulers from the past who were associated with historical success and greatness. This tomb imitates that of Djoser, a pharaoh of the 3rd Dynasty who founded the Old Kingdom, ancient Egypt’s greatest period of fame, success, and prosperity.
“The elite of the period thought that imitating such a famous tomb would give them additional social standing and legitimacy and would bring back their famous past – but obviously it didn’t work.”