In a remote desert oasis in Egypt, archaeologists literally have stumbled upon a treasure trove of as many as 10,000 mummies that promises to shine a brilliant spotlight on the period 2,000 years ago when Roman legionaries ruled the land of the pharaohs.
Preliminary surveys suggest that the cemetery site contains the largest concentration of mummies not only in Egypt, but in the world. Teams of researchers have excavated 105 mummies _ many of them sheathed in gold _ from four tombs in the newly discovered cemetery in the Bahariyya Oasis, more than 200 miles from the pyramids and temples of Egypt's Giza Plateau.
But sheer numbers are only part of the story. Some of the well-preserved mummies _ mostly children _ are covered completely in a thin layer of gold. Others wear gilded gypsum masks, extending all the way to their midriffs, with "magnificent designs of ancient Egyptian divinities on their chests," said Zahi Hawass, director general of the Giza site as well as the monuments at Saqqara on the Nile River.
Others are housed in clay sarcophagi painted with human faces, while the remainder are wrapped in linen "like the mummies of Hollywood horror movies," he said. "I never expected to find something like this so far from the shadows of the pyramids."
Hawass will discuss the findings publicly for the first time today at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Hawass, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has close ties with the Southern California chapter of the American Research Center in Egypt. The center is co-sponsoring today's symposium.
The Bahariyya Oasis and its capital city of el-Bawiti are in the barren interior of Egypt, a three-hour drive southwest of Cairo. Underground aquifers still provide water for agriculture, but during the period of Roman domination from about 330 B.C. to A.D. 400, a milder climate permitted large-scale production of dates and grain. Much of the grain was exported to Rome, and wine made from the dates was shipped throughout the world.
The region's principal claim to fame before now was a modest temple dedicated to Alexander the Great discovered at the end of the last century. Three years ago, a guard at that temple was riding his donkey nearby when the animal's leg buckled and it fell, punching a small hole in the desert floor.
Preliminary studies indicated that the hole was in the ceiling of a buried tomb. A team of archaeologists went back to the site earlier this year and excavated the four tombs that yielded the 105 mummies.
Surface studies indicate that the cemetery covers an area of 4 square miles and may house as many as 10,000 more bodies. Hawass has started calling the region the Valley of the Golden Mummies.
The different types of mummies clearly represent different social strata at the oasis, Hawass said. The gilded masks cover the wealthy and powerful _ landowners, administrators and military officers. The decorated terra cotta sarcophagi hold artisans and craftspeople and, perhaps, valued servants. The simple linen-wrapped mummies are ordinary workers.
In November, Hawass said, the Egyptian government will open at least one of the new tombs to the public, along with the Temple of Alexander the Great and some previously discovered tombs.
Most of the mummies will not be put on display. "I do not believe that bodies of the deceased should be exposed to the public as a thrill," Hawass said.