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The Color of Mummy


Above: Sculpted head of a young Bedouin woman. Below: Wooden panel from the tomb of a female mummy.

Four years ago, a donkey carrying a guard across Egypt’s Bahariya Oasis, 230 miles southwest of Cairo, stumbled over a hole. It turned out to be the edge of a tomb; peeking out was the gold-covered face of a mummy.
    Three years later, archaeologist Dr. Zahi Hawass G’83 Gr’87, returned to the site, dubbed “The Valley of the Golden Mummies,” to lead a record-setting excavation and preservation project. So far 207 mummies dating back to Greco-Roman times have been discovered—the most mummies ever found in one place. Hawass estimates the entire cemetery could contain 10,000 mummies and take 50 years to excavate.
    He gives a dramatic account of the first season of excavations, which yielded 105 impressively preserved mummies in four tombs, in his new book, Valley of the Golden Mummies (Harry Abrams). The photos shown here come from the most recent finds in May; seven tombs yielded 102 mummies preserved in a wide variety of styles, along with numerous funerary artifacts, from bronze coins to pay the ferryman for passage into the afterlife to amulets and food offerings.
    Located on the border to Libya, Bahariya served for centuries as an important crossroads for merchants, traders and soldiers, and was famous for its wine production. Those buried in its cemetery represent a range of economic classes, from the poor, covered only in linen, to the wealthy, adorned with golden masks depicting scenes of the gods.
    Excavators also found evidence of many diseases, including one man who died at age 40 of cancer and another who suffered from headaches brought on by sinusitis.
    Before this find, Hawass had done his major work with pyramids. He is undersecretary of the state for the Giza Monuments and the pyramids director. But he says he has found a new “lover” in the mummies. “My heart was beating” while excavating, he says. “The eyes of the mummies were open. It was like dealing with alive people.”
    Don’t expect this ancient treasure trove to come to a museum near you. Hawass preserved each of the mummies he found on site, and that’s where he intends for them to remain for eternity. Because of the enormous public interest, he did move six mummies to a small museum at the excavation site. Visitors will not be allowed inside the tombs, however, out of respect for the dead.
    “They intended to be in these tombs for the afterlife,” Hawass says. “They are like me and you and should be respected.”

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