Laying undisturbed for thousands of years, the monumental sarcophagus of King Ramses II’s (c. 1303-1213 B.C.E) treasurer has been unearthed from the sands near Cairo. Egyptian archaeologists described the rare discovery of a complete sarcophagus in its original tomb as a “dream”.
Ola El Aguizy, professor emerita at Cairo University and lead site archaeologist, explained that “the discovery of this sarcophagus in its original place in the burial shaft was very exciting because it is the sarcophagus of the owner of the tomb, which is not always the case.”
The tomb was dedicated to Ptah-em-wia, who headed the treasury of King Ramses II, the thirteenth-century B.C.E. ruler generally hailed as Egypt’s mightiest pharaoh. According to El Aguizy, Ptah-em-wia had “a very important role in the administration of that time”, managing the royal treasury and the offerings to all of Egypt’s gods. His huge granite sarcophagus is covered in emblems of deities, including the sky goddess Nut, and inscriptions that detail his close relationship with Ramses II. Many years ago, a piece of the lid was broken off and the mummy removed by ancient tomb robbers seeking burial treasures.
Ptah-em-wia’s underground burial chamber was discovered in Saqqara, an ancient necropolis about 20 miles south of Cairo. Digging began at the royal burial site in 2005, but it was not until May 2021 that Ptah-em-wia’s tomb came to light. Archaeologists found an 8-metre-long passage at the centre of the tomb’s courtyard filled to the brim with sand, which they painstakingly removed using buckets. El Aguizy – who is in her 70s – then clambered into a bucket hanging from a rope winch and descended into the chamber to make the initial survey.
“Saqqara is one of the most important cemeteries, for both royals and non-royals, throughout the millennia of Egyptian history,” said Peter Der Manuelian, professor of Egyptology at Harvard University. “This Egyptian team has added yet another important chapter to the history of the site.”
Speaking about the broader significance of the discovery, Der Manuelian continued “there’s a long history of western archaeologists doing this work. So, it’s great to see their [Egyptian archaeologists] own discoveries – and the fact that she’s a woman archaeologist, an Egyptian woman archaeologist, is even more welcome.”