Only in 2018 could a massive black sarcophagus be opened only to be a crushing disappointment because the world didn’t end.
Said 2,000-year-old-ish fancy body bag, discovered in Alexandria, Egypt on July 1 was opened by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities (EMA) a few weeks later. It was found to contain a few skeletons and a red sludge that some people claimed they wanted to drink.
It also appears that some inscriptions on several thin sheets of precious metal were found within the sarcophagus. Before we have a look over them, however, here’s a quick recap of what we do and don’t know about the contents of the black box already.
Thanks to the work of archaeologists, we now know a little bit more about who was inside the sarcophagus, as well as what they tried to bring with them into the afterlife. The skeletons, which per The Independent date back to the early Ptolemaic period, belonged to one woman and two men.
You can find more details about them here, but until additional DNA and CT scan-based work is done, their identities will remain enigmatic.
Are there any additional clues hinting at who they may have been? Well, possibly, and that’s where these inscriptions come into the picture.
Although multiple news reports and statements by the EMA say that no inscriptions were found in the sarcophagus, several are now reporting that gold sheets with inscriptions on them were in fact extracted from the sludgy mess.
Contrary to what you might think, the gold sheets, no larger than a few centimeters across, don’t signal royalty. In fact, there’s nothing in the sarcophagus at all to suggest these people belonged to the highest echelons of Ptolemaic Egyptian society.
It appears that the addition of each skeleton into the sarcophagus happened at different times, as they were found not resting side-by-side, but instead all on top of one another. It’s not entirely clear how common this practice was, or if it reveals anything about the skeletons' lives or deaths. Either way, it doesn't really imply that they were enormously important people deserving of their own individual death capsules.
Described as “intricate gold panels” by Ahram Online, it’s in fact suggested that they may refer to military rankings. What specific rankings these may be remains unknown.
Interestingly enough, an official at the EMA already suggested they could be warriors or perhaps military officers. This official cited a wound that could have been created by an arrow on one of the skeletons, but it's possible the gold sheets already played into this hypothesis.
Live Science have managed to do some metaphorical digging themselves. Although the EMA hasn’t officially commented on these golden panels in any detail just yet, this particular outlet contacted some external historians, archaeologists, and Egyptologists to see if they could decipher any.
It’s thought that the unhooded snake, a ubiquitous motif found on Egyptian jewelry from that time period, was representative of rebirth – very apt for a funereal setting. Some of the other inscriptions show palm branches or corn ears, which are also related to rebirth, and fertility; others drawings are proving difficult to ascertain at present.
Several etches appear to show a seed pod of an opium poppy enveloped by a shrine, something that’s speculated to be associated with either medicinal purposes, or a dream/sleep/death/rebirth notion of some kind. Either way, they’re certainly fascinating objects with plenty of question marks surrounding them.
Remember, this is just the opening salvo of preliminary research. Expect more answers, and potentially more open-ended queries, to arise in the near-future.