History buffs and those fascinated with Egyptian lore have been entranced by the recent discovery of an unopened sarcophagus in Alexandria. That’s because it is rare to come across an ancient tomb that has been untouched by looters in search of treasures. The tomb, found in the Sidi Gabe district, dates back more than 2,000 years.
Scientists carefully opened the black granite sarcophagus on July 19th, despite superstitious warnings that doing so might unleash a curse.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Archaeologists Discovered the Skeletons of Three Possible Warriors
Inside the sarcophagus lay three decomposed skeletons. The Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Mostafa Waziri, told Egypt Today that one of the skulls had multiple fractures consistent with being hit by an arrow. That indicates that the three people may have been warriors.
Waziri told reporters there is no indication the men were part of a royal family. There were no inscriptions inside the tomb and nothing indicating names. He says the skulls will undergo further testing at the Alexandria National Museum to determine what era the men lived in and how old they likely were when they died. The coffin was taken to the Military Museum for further testing as well.
The reason archaeologists did not find intact mummies inside appears to be because of the presence of liquid. The sarcophagus also contained dirty water. Scientists say the water likely leaked in from a sewage trench and caused the mummies to decompose.
2. Archaeologists are Puzzled About the Sarcophagus’ Massive Size
The tomb was discovered July 1st buried about 5 meters deep. It weighs a solid 30 tons, despite the lack of any heavy treasures inside. The sarcophagus itself is made out of a strong black granite.
The massive size of the sarcophagus has archaeologists scratching their heads. It is nearly 9 feet long, 5 feet wide and 6 feet tall. The Council of Antiquities spokesperson says it’s believed to be the largest sarcophagus ever unearthed in Alexandria.
The size is puzzling because men were much shorter in ancient times. Average Egyptian men were typically not much taller than five feet.
Archaeologists are confident the sarcophagus has been sealed since the original burial. There is a layer of mortar between the lid and the body of the tomb.
3. Researchers Initially Hoped They Had Finally Found the Long-Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great
There was a fascinating clue found alongside the tomb: an alabaster head. Archaeologists believe the sculpture likely belonged to the owner of the tomb. It further fueled speculation that perhaps the sculpture, and therefore the tomb, belonged to Alexander the Great.
Archaeologists say the tomb dates back to the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Ptolemy I’s rule began after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. The dynasty lasted about 300 years, ending with the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC.
As the leader of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon, Alexander expanded his empire in a very short time. He is said to have been educated by Aristotle before beginning his military career at age 16. He conquered lands stretching from the eastern Mediterranean all the way to India. But while in Babylon, which is modern-day Iraq, Alexander mysteriously became ill and fell into a coma. After several days of suffering, he died at the age of 33. The exact cause of his death is one of the ancient world’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
Historical records indicate Alexander the Great’s sarcophagus was laid to rest in Alexandria, and that figures such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and several Roman emperors visited his tomb there. But his final resting place has never been found in modern times. And of course, now that the black granite sarcophagus has been opened and no treasures were found, it’s exceedingly unlikely that it is Alexander.
4. Is There a Curse on the Sarcophagus? Local Experts Don’t Think so but the Superstitions Persist
Interested fans across the world speculated about a possible curse that could be unleashed if the sarcophagus was opened. These are, after all, tombs. Archaeologists are excavating a burial place. Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri dismissed the possibility of a curse. He told reporters, “The sarcophagus has been opened, but we have not been hit by a curse.”
Superstitious belief in the “Curse of the Pharaoh” stems from the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Several people involved in the excavation died shortly after the find. The most high-profile death was that of financer George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the Lord of Carnarvon. He died about 4 months after the opening of the tomb from an infected mosquito bite.
However, the leader of the excavation, Harvard Carter, lived for another 16 years after opening the tomb. Live Science reports that Carter probably promoted the idea of a curse in order to keep curious onlookers away and preserve the site.
5. Looting of Ancient Sites Increased in Egypt After the 2011 Revolution with Violent Consequences
Researchers told Live Science that young children have been used to illegally dig through ancient burial sites in Egypt. Looters need the small children to help them reach tight areas. Egyptologist Monica Hanna told the publication that in 2015, more than 25 children died while working in the dangerous shafts. It’s also reported that guards assigned to protect ancient tombs have been killed by grave robbers.
It’s also estimated that more than $143 million worth of artifacts have been sold in the United States since 2011. That includes more than 45 pounds of ancient gold coins. It’s difficult for U.S. customs agents to detect looted artifacts, due to forged paperwork and the fact that smugglers clean and restore the items to look legitimate.
That is another reason why the find in Alexandria is so extraordinary. It does not appear that looters ever touched the site. If they had, the sarcophagus would have been ripped open in the hope of finding gold and other treasures buried inside with the mummy. Researchers are going to do further excavations of the site in order to determine what else could be buried there.