Ancient Egyptian Mummies Found in the Valley of the Kings

Thirty coffins found near the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor

Colorful illustrations visible on this 3,000 year old coffin.

Photo: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities via AP

In the largest find of its type in a century, in 2019 archaeologists uncovered thirty mummies in sealed coffins. They were found in the Asasif Necropolis, on the west bank of the Nile, when an archaeologist noticed the head of one coffin sticking out from the sand.

The coffins were stacked in two rows, less than three feet underground. The ancient Egyptian mummies within the coffins included 23 men, five women, and two children, probably priests and their family members from ancient Egypt’s 22nd dynasty: roughly 943-716 B.C.E. At a press briefing October 18th, Archaeologist Zahi Hawass noted that finding the ancient mummies of children was unusual.

Open Hand and Balled Fist Coffins

30 sealed coffins were found stacked two deep in the ground. The open hands (behind) indicate a woman is mummified inside the coffin. The balled fists (in front) indicate a man. Photo: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities via AP

Also at the briefing, Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, explained that without unwrapping the mummies they could determine the gender by looking at the carvings on the coffins. The women had open hands carved on them, whereas the men had balled fists.

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These coffins were well-preserved under the sand, thanks in large part to a lack of settlement in the Valley of the Kings where they had been buried. The fine carvings and designs include scenes from the Book of the Dead, as well as snakes, lotus flowers, birds, and hieroglyphics in brightly painted yellow, red, green, and black. Some names are carved in the coffins, presumably of the occupants.

The mummies of ancient Egypt have been a source of fascination ever since they first began to be discovered by archaeologists in the late 19th century. As Zahi Hawass wrote for the Biblical Archaeology Society in “Mummies” (Archaeology Odyssey, September/October 2000):

According to ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, the heart/soul of the deceased is placed on a scale and weighed against the feather worn by Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. If the scale tips one way or the other, a huge animal will devour the deceased. But if the scale is balanced, the god Horus will escort the deceased to Osiris and Isis, the gods who preside over the afterlife.

One of the first Egyptian mummies to go on display to be seen by a western audience was that of a woman in 1902. In 2006, Zahi Hawass and others determined her to be the Pharoah Hatshepsut, a rare female pharaoh who ruled from 1480-1458 B.C.E. An Egyptian artifact, a tooth known to belong to Hatshepsut because it had been preserved in a wooden box with her name, proved crucial. Hatshepsut’s tooth was a perfect fit for the gap in the mummy’s mouth, thereby establishing her identity.

Colorful heiroglyphics on a Luxor coffin's side.

Colorful heiroglyphics on a coffin’s side. Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Khaled al-Anani takes a close look. Photo: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities via AP

Several hundred years later, also in the Valley of the Kings of Luxor, these coffins were stacked and buried. Waziri said that a priest must have hidden them to try and save them from being looted by tomb robbers. Now they have been found, and will assist Egyptologists in understanding more about ancient Egyptian burial rites. The government of Egypt intends to move them to the Grand Egyptian museum that is being constructed near the Giza Pyramids in Cairo. They may be on display at the museum as soon as next year.

A version of this story was first published in Bible History Daily in October, 2019

Read more about ancient Egyptian mummies in the BAS Library:

Gay Robins, “The Enigma of Hatshepsut: Egypt’s female pharaoh,” Archaeology Odyssey, Winter 1999.

BAS Staff, “When a Woman Ruled Egypt” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2006.

Zahi Hawass, “Mummies: Emissaries of the golden age” Archaeology Odyssey, September/October 2000.

Alain Zivie, “Pharaoh’s Man, ‘Abdiel: The Vizier with a Semitic Name” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2018.

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