‘Sensational’ Find is NOT Cleopatra’s Tomb, But May Be a Clue
Taposiris Magna was just another archaeological site in Egypt until a rumor arose that the tomb of the famous Queen Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony may be there. This location rises and fades from public interest every few years, but now a new documentary, ‘The Hunt for Cleopatra’s Tomb,’ has brought it back to light once again. There are some interesting new discoveries at the site, including a couple of gold leaf coated mummies.
Cleopatra and Mark Antony were defeated by Octavian in the Battle of Alexandria in 30 BC. Their death, be it by suicide or murder, set one of the greatest archaeological mysteries into motion – the search for their lost tomb.
Historic sources claim that Octavian was impressed by the Egyptian ruler and so he allowed her to be laid to rest with her lover. The location of their tomb has never been found, but there is a persistent belief that the mummies of Cleopatra and Antony may have ended up at a site not far from Alexandria.
Discoveries at Taposiris Magna
Although it’s said they have only covered about five percent of the site to date, archaeologists began to seriously explore the land in and around the temple of Taposiris Magna in 1998. These excavations rediscovered important parts of the city and some amazing artifacts. The excavators have mostly unearthed ancient Egyptian artifacts, but have also discovered coins and other small pieces left by the Byzantines and Romans.
For the past 14 years, Dr. Kathleen Martínez has been the head of excavations at the site. The discoveries made during that time have made her more and more certain that she is close to the long lost tomb of Cleopatra. The famous ancient Egyptian queen’s proposed ties to the site has brought Abusir to international headlines as new and intriguing finds and documentaries are made about the site every few years.
Internal view towards South of the Osiris Temple in Taposiris Magna. (CC BY SA 3.0)
There have been many notable discoveries during the excavations. For example, in 2010, a huge headless granite statue of a Ptolemaic king was unearthed. Dr. Zahi Hawass believes that it probably belonged to Ptolemy IV and was dedicated to the god Osiris, stressing the link between the ancient site and the well-known ancient Egyptian god.
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The evolving Taposiris Magna site. (Dr. Kathleen Martinez)
Dr. Hawass has shown some interest in the site and has even led an expedition there himself - discovering 27 tombs with his excavation team. About 20 of the tombs were vaulted (partly aboveground and partly under it.) The other seven tombs contained staircases which led to very simple, undecorated burial chambers. Behind the temple, a huge Greco-Roman necropolis was discovered.
The mummies that were buried there had their faces turned towards the temple, which may be a clue that this site could contain a more significant tomb. Rumors soon arose that the missing burial chamber may belong to a famous Egyptian ruler – Cleopatra. Perhaps there are even two significant people, if Plutarch's assertion is true that Octavian allowed the couple to be buried together after they committed suicide in 30 BC .
The location of Taposiris Magna, a drawing of the temple complex and an Isis sculpture. (Ancient Code)
Finding a Pair of “Spectacular” Mummies
The main focus of many of the articles appearing for the new documentary are focusing on two of the more interesting mummies that were recently found at the site. The Guardian, for example, suggests these were “high-status individuals who lived at the time of Cleopatra.”
Dr. Glenn Godenho, a senior lecturer in Egyptology at Liverpool University, has described the discovery of the gold leaf-covered mummies as “spectacular.” He also confirmed that, “To be covered in gold leaf shows they ... would have been … important members of society.”
The documentary is said to reveal the moment when the burial chamber containing these mummies was opened for the first time and Martínez looked through a small hole, then exclaimed: “Oh my god, there are two mummies … See this wonder.”
The two mummies found inside a sealed tomb at Taposiris Magna were originally covered with gold leaf. (Arrow Media)
They may be special, but these are probably not the mummies of Antony and Cleopatra. As Dr. Godenho has said, the tomb of the lost lovers should be a “way grander affair” than the undecorated chamber in which the two water-damaged mummies were found. He told MailOnline:
“Although we don’t know what Ptolemaic rulers’ tombs looked like because none have ever been firmly identified yet, it’s really unlikely that they’d be nondescript and indistinguishable from the burials of their subjects.”
The mummies have been X-rayed and there is a suggestion that they may be priests. They are male and female and one had a scarab, a symbol of rebirth, painted in gold leaf on its remains.
A City of Many Names
Abu Sir (Abusir), also known by its Roman name as Taposiris Magna, is located 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Alexandria. The ancient Egyptians called it Per Usiri, meaning “Dwelling of Osiris.” That name comes from a temple to the god that was built at the site to honor an ancient Egyptian belief that Isis found one of the parts of Osiris’ body at this site, after he had been dismembered by his brother Seth.
As noted in a previous Ancient Origins article, this site is also referred to as the ‘site of the forgotten kings of the 5th Dynasty,’ for the number of tombs and pyramids that have been linked to pharaohs from that time period. A collection of Old Kingdom boats have also been unearthed at the site.
There may have been a town at the site since Pre-Dynastic times and it has served as an important port for a long period of its history. An old wine press and bridge have been found at the site and it also had a lighthouse by the Ptolemaic period. The Taposiris Magna lighthouse has been used as basis for reconstructions of the more famous Pharos of Alexandria since scholars believe it may have been built as a scaled-down replica.
The Lighthouse in Taposiris Magna. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Search for Cleopatra at Taposiris Magna
The focus of interest for archaeologists who link the site to Cleopatra and Antony is the temple to Osiris that was built during the reign of Ptolemy II. This is primarily due to Dr. Martinez’s belief that the temple of Osiris hides the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.
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Martinez made the association between the site and the lost tomb of Antony and Cleopatra by combining some of the following pieces of evidence: a Cleopatra bust, 22 coins with her image, amulets, a headless statue dating to Cleopatra's reign, and a mask depicting a man with a cleft chin – who some suspect is Mark Antony. As Martinez has said :
“The strong evidence that Taposiris Magna was a crucial site to Cleopatra is represented through the many depictions of the queen, among them the statues of Isis, coins and inscribed stelae amongst other objects.”
One of the treasures discovered at Taposiris Magna by Dr. Kathleen Martinez. ( Screenshot – Cleopatra’s Lost Tomb ) Is this an image of Mark Antony?
The Search for Cleopatra’s Tomb Continues
Even though Dr. Glenn Godenho is the presenter for the forthcoming documentary on Channel 5 in the UK, he seems wary of the idea that Cleopatra’s tomb is even located at Taposiris Magna. At the very least, he is certain that these two mummies which are making headlines are not the remains of the lovers. As he told MailOnline, “Add to that the fact that most consider the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony to be in the vicinity of Alexandria rather than out here at Taposiris Magna, and all the evidence points to these not being royal mummies at all.”
So, the search for Cleopatra’s tomb continues. It is a historical mystery that has endured for nearly two millennia and shows no clear signs of being solved in the near future. Though we can always hope some surprising find may change all of that!
The new documentary, ‘The Hunt for Cleopatra’s Tomb,’ discussing Martinez’s discoveries at the site, will be available on Thursday on Channel 5 in the UK. According to Discovery, a similar documentary was presented on the Science Channel as ‘Cleopatra: Sex Lies and Secrets’.
Vrettos, T, Alexandria, City of the Western Mind, 2001.
Empereur, J., Alexandria Rediscovered, 1998.
Chauveau, M., Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society Under the Ptolemies, 2000.