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Egyptian commander’s tomb, sarcophagus and grave goods uncovered at Abusir, Egypt. Source: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

Excavation Unearths Unique Tomb of 6th Century BC Egyptian Commander

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While performing excavations near the Giza Plateau , a team of Czech archaeologists from Charles University in Prague unearthed a tomb that belonged to a powerful Egyptian military commander who lived 2,500 years ago.

The individual buried in the tomb was known as Wah-Ib-Ra Meri Nate Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities recently announced on its Facebook page . He was an army leader who served in either the late 26th or early 27th dynasties, around the year 500 BC. His role was somewhat unique among military commanders, as the battalions he led were comprised entirely of foreign mercenaries.

Wah-Ib-Ra Meri Nate lived during what the Egyptian Ministry refers to as “the first ages of real globalism in the ancient world.” This designation is in recognition of the fact that soldiers from outside the country were representing Egypt in battle for the first time.

The ancient Egyptian commander’s tomb, 7.5 miles from the Giza Pyramids. (Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)

The ancient Egyptian commander’s tomb, 7.5 miles from the Giza Pyramids. ( Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities )

The Czech archaeologists dug up the ancient commander’s tomb just 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from the Pyramids of Giza , close to the Old Kingdom cemetery and archaeological site of Abusir. Notably, the tomb was found near the spot where Wah-Ib-Ra Meri Nate’s embalming cache was discovered four months ago. The discovery of the latter suggested the commander might have been entombed in the area, so the archaeologists were not shocked to find this burial site where they did.

Digging Up a One-of-a-Kind Tomb

Wah-Ib-Ra Meri Nate was interred in a huge, two-tiered square tomb specifically dug to hold the acclaimed commander’s remains. The main shaft was nearly 20 feet (six meters) deep and measured approximately 45 feet by 45 feet (14 meters by 14 meters) across. Another smaller shaft was dug into the bedrock below that, and this one was rectangular and measured 11 feet by 21 feet (6.5 meters by 3.3 meters).

The commander’s mummified body was placed at the bottom of this second shaft, far underground at a depth of approximately 52 feet (16 meters). He was buried inside an elaborate double-sarcophagus that had both an inner and outer section. The outer sarcophagus was constructed from two heavy slabs of white limestone, while the inner coffin was carved out of basalt and formed into the shape of a human body. Overall, the basalt sarcophagus measured 7.5 by 6.5 feet (2.3 meters by 1.98 meters) in size.

The damaged double-sarcophagus that once held the Egyptian commander’s mummy. (Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)

The damaged double-sarcophagus that once held the Egyptian commander’s mummy. ( Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities )

The archaeologists were disappointed to discover that the sarcophagus had been smashed open and that the mummy of Wah-Ib-Ra Meri Nate had been removed. They concluded that tomb raiders had broken in and stolen it more than 1,000 years ago, based on the discovery of two ceramic vessels left behind inside the tomb that dated to the fourth or fifth century AD.

In addition to lacking a mummy, the space inside the basalt sarcophagus was also short on grave goods. The only things found were a scarab intricately carved into the shape of a heart and an amulet designed to be worn on the head.

Scarab carved into the shape of a heart. (Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)

Scarab carved into the shape of a heart. ( Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities )

Around the exterior of the sarcophagus, however, the archaeologists unearthed some fascinating items. These included more than 400 small ushabti statues made of a glossy quartz-ceramic material known as faience. These figurines represented servants who would perform services for their master in the afterlife. The Czech researchers also discovered two alabaster canopic jars , which were designed to hold the eviscerated organs of the deceased (they would have been buried close to the sarcophagus during a sacred ritual). They also uncovered a model of an offering table, 10 model cups, and a thin limestone sheet (known as an ostracon) that was used as a writing surface. The latter contained religious texts written in Egyptian script .

Alabaster canopic jars and cups found in the tomb. (Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)

Alabaster canopic jars and cups found in the tomb. ( Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities )

“Due to the limited space, the author of the text decided to cover the ostracon with brief excerpts from the Book of the Dead spells that also formed parts of the ritual of transfiguration and thus guarantying an undisturbed afterlife existence of the owner,” explained Dr. Miroslav Barta, the Charles University Egyptologist who led the Czech expedition.

This was not the only inscription found in the tomb that included excepts from the Egyptian Book of the Dead , a collection of ritual spells designed to help a deceased person make a smooth and safe transition to the afterlife. On the upper part of the basalt inner sarcophagus, the Czech archaeologists discovered more hieroglyphic writings from that ancient text, which in this instance all came from the Book’s 72nd chapter.

Overall, what was found in the tomb could not be considered an extensive collection of goods, in comparison to what has been found in other ancient Egyptian burials. But that doesn’t detract from the significance of the find.

"Although the archaeological excavations of the cemetery of Wa-ip-Ra Meri Nate did not provide us with many important archaeological finds or elaborate funerary items, this cemetery is considered unique and important," declared Dr. Muhammad Mujahid, the deputy director of the Czech archaeological mission. “The design of this well-tomb has no identical counterpart in ancient Egypt.”

He explained that the discovery of the burial site provided valuable data about a difficult period in Egyptian history, when Persian intrusions threatened the independence and stability of the country. Egypt was eventually conquered by Cambyses II, the son of Cyrus the Great , who became the nation’s first Persian pharaoh in 525 BC. It was he who founded Egpyt’s Persian-dominated 27th dynasty, in which Wah-Ib-Ra Meri Nate may have served if he was alive at that time.  

The Burial Chamber of a Hero?

The discovery of Wah-Ib-Ra Meri Nate’s embalming deposit and later his burial site has given archaeologists an opportunity to learn a few things about the military commander’s life. A close examination of his tomb suggests it wasn’t quite finished when he died, and if his final entombment was unexpected that could be one reason why there was a relative scarcity of goods and inscriptions found inside.

Since he was a military man, it seems reasonable to presume that Wah-Ib-Ra Meri Nate died in battle. If he didn’t serve during the reign of Cambyses II, perhaps he lost his life in a campaign of resistance against the invading Persians before 525 BC. If so he likely died a hero of sorts, and he would have been given a proper and elaborate burial even if his final resting place was not entirely prepared for his arrival.

Top image: Egyptian commander’s tomb, sarcophagus and grave goods uncovered at Abusir, Egypt. Source: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

By Nathan Falde

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

"The individual buried in the tomb was known as Wah-Ib-Ra Meri Nate Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities recently announced on its Facebook page."

It’s a marketable narrative at least.  

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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