When Brigham Young University professor C. Wilfred Griggs resumed his archaeological excavation at an ancient Egyptian cemetery, he didn't expect it would terminate with an escort to the capital of Cairo by grim-faced, heavily armed Egyptian army troops.
Then again, he didn't expect to uncover a perfectly preserved mummy of a woman wearing a priceless golden death mask - a stunning masterpiece rivaling anything ever discovered in treasure-rich Egypt.Griggs, a renowned Egyptologist, and other scientists found the mummy Feb. 20 in an unplundered Egyptian tomb dating to about 100 B.C. "Nothing of this caliber from this late in Egyptian history has ever been found," said Griggs. "It's exquisite."
At first, archaeologists were excited just to find an unplundered tomb. When they carefully lifted the top from the heavy wood casket, they were stunned by the magnitude of their discovery.
"We saw her beautiful golden face shining back at us, and there was an awesome silence. We realized immediately what a special and unusual opportunity it was for us," said Griggs.
The awe soon turned to worry as word of the golden death mask spread like wildfire through the local community. Guards hired to protect the site told researchers they couldn't be responsible for the mummy's safety, and army troops were immediately summoned to take the amazing treasure to Cairo for safe keeping.
The unplundered pre-Christian tomb, dating to between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D., was found buried beneath a limestone ridge of a cemetery near Seila, where BYU researchers have been working for years to study the development of Christianity in Egypt. The cemetery was used for about 1,000 years beginning about 100 B.C.
Griggs was joined in the project by Revell Phillips, professor of geology, and Marvin C.J. Kuchar, a professor of clothing and textiles, both of BYU. Three paleopathologists from California universities were also working with the team.
The majority of the tombs that scientists had studied were from the Christian era and most had been plundered by thieves looking for valuable artifacts. The past two years, researchers have focused their efforts on a more wealthy part of the cemetery - an area, however, that showed even greater signs of plundering.
"We were finding nothing in pristine condition," said Griggs. "But the looters had left things behind that were helpful. We drew some conclusions from the pieces of death masks, tools and artifacts, and we always had hope we would find something the plunderers had overlooked."
Griggs and the others did make some important discoveries. One was an unplundered mummy that had been damaged by water that had seeped into the tomb and then dried. They also found a tomb with more than 200 mummified, ritually buried cats - something researchers are still at a loss to explain.
"When we were working on that tomb, we noticed a slight depression in the sand nearby," explained Griggs. "It did not look promising, but we decided to go ahead and give it a try, even though it seemed to be the least promising of the areas we had worked."
So workers began removing sand from the depression, eventually exposing a room about 15-20 feet long and about eight feet wide. They found a couple of plundered burials and also a few pieces of pottery from the Roman period.
When workers eventually hit the rock floor, "we had convinced ourselves it wasn't going to yield much," he said. But as Griggs was clearing out sand from a back corner, he noticed a rock in the wall at floor level that didn't belong there. It looked the same color as the other rocks in the wall, but it was obvious it had been placed there.
"Why would they carve a hole in the back wall so close to the floor?" Griggs asked. As he cleared around the rock, he realized the rock went below floor level. "I realized then the rock we were standing on was not the bedrock," he said.
Workers then set out to remove the rock floor, revealing that the rock was in fact the top rock in a sealed doorway below the floor level. "It was then we realized we had an unplundered tomb of the first order," he said.
Rock by rock, the doorway was removed, revealing a coffin wedged tightly into the burial crypt and a small wrapped mummy lying crossways in the opening in front of the coffin.
X-rays of the tiny mummy revealed it was that of a 4-year-old child - but one with strange characteristics. The upper leg bones were placed at odd angles and belonged to a human older than four years of age. In addition, the child had two very odd-looking molars. His pelvis was covered by a 3-inch-by-6-inch metal plate.
That discovery had archaeologists buzzing. Was this the child of a parent in the coffin? Why was the body not placed in the coffin, as was customary in Egypt? Why the apparent lack of concern or care for the small body? No other mummy like it had ever been found.
After removing the mummy for later study, workers spent an entire afternoon carefully removing the adult coffin from the tomb. It fit the hole so tightly all they could do was use their fingernails to pull it out - a process that took several hours.
"We couldn't help but marvel at the craftsmanship," Griggs said, noting there was no apparent decomposition of the materials. The lid had been snapped perfectly into place with a series of tabs and dowels.
Six men lifted the coffin, and "we proceeded funeral procession to the lab," Griggs said. "And we put it under lock and key for a day or two while we cleaned up the area to make sure we hadn't missed anything." No one yet suspected what lay just below the heavy wood lid.
After the shock of their discovery wore off, scientists determined the body was first treated and then partially wrapped. A plaster breast plate was then placed on her chest and a board was placed at her feet. Over the head and down onto the shoulders, layer upon layer of fine gold was shaped over a plaster mask.
The eyes were of colored glass and a semi-precious material was used to create the eyebrows. Researchers believe there is probably jewelry and other indications of wealth under the wrappings.
The mask was brightly painted in reds, blues, whites and yellows to depict scenes of the afterworld and the Egyptian gods. The body was then wrapped and re-wrapped. Flowers were placed on her chest and garlands of four different kinds of flowers were wrapped around her body and then the body was placed on a bed of flowers.
"There was a great amount of love and tenderness and devotion that went into this burial," said Griggs. "The amount of detail and the amount of effort that went in to burying the dead suggests the importance of their belief relating to the next phase of life.
"I think that's a point that can be emphasized. The dead were properly dressed and attired to progress in eternity."
For Griggs, however, the excitement was more than just the gold and beautifully wrapped mummy. It was the conclusion to years of research into the cemetery that now allows Griggs to write the history of the cemetery from pre-Christian times onward, as well as the religious and cultural transition that occurred, all using evidence from unplundered tombs.
"That doesn't win headlines like golden mummies, but it's probably more important," he said.