Golden Mummies Abound at Bahariya Oasis

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Golden Mummies Abound at Bahariya Oasis

"The best discoveries come by surprise," was certainly an understatement by Dr. Zahi Hawass, director general of antiquities at Giza and Saqqara, as he opened a talk on the accidental find of what may be the largest concentration of mummies in the world.

Speaking to a large audience from the Southern California Chapter of the American Research Center in Egypt, Dr. Hawass said that three years ago in the oasis town of Bahariya, a donkey stumbled near a temple dedicated to Alexander the Great. The animal's leg broke through a layer of solid material beneath the sand. It turned out to be the ceiling of an underground tomb.

Dr. Hawass headed an archeological team that began a preliminary study of the site around Alexander's temple last spring. The ebullient archeologist, who holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania, said that Bahariya -- which is a three-and-a-half-hour drive southwest of Cairo-was a very important and prosperous oasis center during the Greco-Roman period in Egypt.

"The climate was more temperate than now," Hawass said. "The people grew wheat and became rich from date wine and grains they exported. The people became so wealthy, they could afford great coffins and elaborate burials, all within the protection of the temple of Alexander the Great."

Hawass surveyed the site, which probably supported a population of 30,000. Judging by its time frame (323 B.C. to 400 A.D.), he estimates that as many as 10,000 mummies may be buried in a four-square-mile area. What's more, there was no evidence in the four intact tombs his team opened that grave robbers were aware of this vast cemetery.

Researchers so far have examined 105 mummies. And, except for five of them, all will be reburied.

"We carefully photograph and draw the mummies and have even transported a couple of them to Giza to be X-rayed. But eventually, we will return them to their resting place. I do not believe the remains of the dead should be exposed to the public as a thrill," he commented.

There is little chance that modern grave robbers will be able to get their hands on the richer burials, inasmuch as Hawass has hired a small army of sentries to guard the site.

The plenitude of coins, pottery, sculptures and other artifacts found in the tombs will, Hawass says, enable archeologists to establish for the first time a chronology differentiating the Greek Ptolemaic period (from 332 B.C. at the time of Alexander's death to 30 B.C. upon the demise of Cleopatra VII) from the Roman occupation (30 B.C. to 400 A.D.).

"So far, we have not uncovered mummies that could be identified as Greek or Roman," he continued. …