Buried deep below the shifting sands of the Sahara desert lies an ancient necropolis more than 4,000 years old that, until recently, has been relatively unknown to Egyptologists. Now, an international group of researchers has teamed up to describe and map the ancient cemetery just outside the village of Lisht, Egypt, unearthing more than 800 tombs in the process.
An expedition co-led by the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities found 802 tombs buried in the massive cemetery, which is nestled between two pyramids, one positioned to the north and the other to the south.
The tombs were discovered along a rocky edge, and are characterized by a special architectural style as they are carved into the rock and surrounded by brick and limestone, said the ministry in a Facebook post. Looted long before the excavation began, the tombs still provide a valuable window into ancient Egyptian life, giving clues about the health, economy, and culture of its people.
According to the ministry, the cemetery is engraved on the rocky edge of the mountain and consists of two parts. An open courtyard leads to a corridor with a domed ceiling that showcases hieroglyphics and leads to a hall with a small room decorated with inscriptions. The second part of the cemetery is a burial plot located in an open courtyard. To the western side is a passage leading to an initial burial chamber in an unmarked room with a limestone coffin, and to the south is an entrance to an empty room. Here, there are geometric formations “whose purpose is unclear”.
The project is part of an initiative to restore many of ancient Egypt’s historical sites following the looting and destruction that took place during Egypt’s political and economic instability between 2009 and 2013. Detailed satellite images taken during this time showed deep pockmarks indicating looting and it was later revealed that most of these pits led to tombs. Since then, the team has worked to document features in each tomb through photos and GPS coordinates that have since been inputted into a database.
Dating back to Egypt's Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1782 BCE), the graveyard depicts an era known as Egypt’s “Classical Age”. This period produced some of ancient society’s greatest works of art and literature, as well as an understanding of the human condition. Nearby, the royal tombs belonging to Kings Amenemhat I and Senusret I have been documented and mapped, but this new project is among the first to map more common tombs in detail.