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Decorated Hellenistic pot lid found at the site.

False Door Tombstone and Array of Artifacts Unearthed in the City of Alexandria


A team of Egyptian archaeologists has recently uncovered the remains of many Greco-Roman tombs, including a "distinguished" tombstone, in the eastern cemetery of the ancient city of Alexandria.

New Find is Part of a Hellenistic Cemetery

The new find was unearthed at the Al-Abd archaeological site in Alexandria and experts suggest that it’s a part of a Hellenistic cemetery which is located on the city's sea shore. The Ministry of Antiquities announced the discovery yesterday, highlighting the different types of artifacts discovered at the site. Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, stated that the archaeological team discovered several lamps adorned with scenes of ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman deities along with vessels. “But the most important item of this discovery is a very distinguished tombstone that was once used to close one of the cemetery's burial shaft,” he said via Ahram Online.

Tombstone with painted false door relief found at Al-Abd, Egypt (Ministry of Antiquities)

Tombstone with painted false door relief found at Al-Abd, Egypt (Ministry of Antiquities)

Waziri explained that the tombstone is adorned with scenes and inscriptions created from a mixture of sand and lime on a flat background representing the facade of an ancient Egyptian temple. The scenes portray a staircase leading to the entrance of the temple and two columns holding up the entrance’s roof. “The staircase leads to a set of double doors, one of which is half-open and bears a winged sun-disk decoration,” he told Ahram Online.

Hellenistic Art and the Ptolemaic Dynasty

Hellenistic art is the art of the period in classical antiquity generally taken to begin with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and end with the conquest of the Greek world by the Romans, a process well underway by 146 BC, when the Greek mainland was taken, and essentially ending in 31 BC with the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt following the Battle of Actium. A number of the best-known works of Greek sculpture belong to this period, including Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. It follows the period of Classical Greek art, while the succeeding Greco-Roman art was very largely a continuation of Hellenistic trends.

For the first time, remarkable museums and great libraries were constructed, such as those at Alexandria and Pergamon. Hellenistic artists copied and adapted earlier styles, and also made great innovations. Representations of Greek gods took on new forms. The popular image of a nude Aphrodite, for example, reflects the increased secularization of traditional religion. Also prominent in Hellenistic art are representations of Dionysos, the god of wine and legendary conqueror of the East, as well as those of Hermes, the god of commerce. In strikingly tender depictions, Eros, the Greek personification of love, is portrayed as a young child.

Ptolemy I as Dionysus, 3rd century BC.

Ptolemy I as Dionysus, 3 rd century BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Most of the Ptolemaic magical stele were connected with matters of health. They were commonly of limestone; the Greeks tended to use marble or bronze for private sculpture. The most striking change in depiction of figures is the range from idealizing to nearly grotesque realism in portrayal of men. Previously Egyptian depictions tended toward the idealistic but stiff, not with an attempt at likeness. Likeness was still not the goal of art under the Ptolemies. The influence of Greek sculpture under the Ptolemies was shown in its emphasis on the face more than in the past. Smiles suddenly appear. Toward the end of the Ptolemaic period, the headdress sometimes gives way to tousled hair.

One significant change in Ptolemaic art is the sudden re-appearance of women, who had been absent since about the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. Some of this must have been due to the importance of women, such as the series of Cleopatras, who acted as co-regents or sometimes occupied the throne by themselves. Although women were present in artwork, they were shown less realistically than men in this era. Even with the Greek influence on art, the notion of the individual portrait still had not supplanted Egyptian artistic norms during the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

A decorated lamp recently found at the site. (Ministry of Antiquities)

A decorated lamp recently found at the site. (Ministry of Antiquities)

Evolutionary Tomb Introduced the “False-Door” Idea

Dr. Ayman Ashmawy, head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector, focused on the importance of this tombstone since it introduced the method of a false door in order to deceive thieves and draw them away from the real door of the tomb. “The false-door idea was widespread in Ancient Egypt,” Dr. Ashmawy tells Ahram Online. The false door feature was also used as a supposed gateway between the physical and the spiritual realms. The spirits of the dead could return to the physical world to accept offerings.

Ultimately, local authorities informed that the newly discovered tombstone was found in a very bad condition but restoration works have already started in order to make it look great again.

Top image: Decorated Hellenistic pot lid found at the site. (Ministry of Antiquities)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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