Untouched 4,400-year-old tomb discovered at Saqqara, Egypt

The stunning tomb displays clues to the life of a royal official, with more discoveries likely.

During Egypt’s pyramid age, a well-connected man named Wahtye died and was laid to rest in the vast royal cemetery that now occupies the desert west of modern Cairo. His colorfully decorated tomb, apparently intact, has recently come to light some 16 feet (five meters) beneath the sand at the archaeological site known as Saqqara. (Learn more about Egypt's great pyramids.)

This burial is “one of a kind in the last decades,” said Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, at a press conference that announced the discovery earlier today. "The color is almost intact even though the tomb is almost 4,400 years old."

The tomb owner served King Neferirkare, who ruled during the Old Kingdom’s fifth dynasty. In addition to the name of the deceased, hieroglyphs carved into the stone above the tomb’s door reveal his titles: royal purification priest, royal supervisor, and inspector of the sacred boat.

"What we have is a rock-cut tomb-chapel," explained Aidan Dodson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol, in an email. "What has been revealed so far is the 'public' part of the complex, where family, friends, and priests could come and leave offerings for the dead." Dodson was not part of this project.

The grave’s rectangular gallery—measuring 33 feet (10 meters) wide north to south, 10 feet (three meters) east to west, and about ten feet tall—is covered in painted reliefs, sculptures, and inscriptions, all in remarkably good shape after so many centuries.

The reliefs depict Wahtye himself, his wife, Weret Ptah, and his mother, Merit Meen, as well as everyday scenes that include hunting, sailing, making offerings, and manufacturing goods such as pottery and funerary furniture. Large painted statues of the priest and his family fill 18 niches, while 26 smaller niches near the floor hold statues of an as yet unidentified person either standing or seated with legs crossed, as a scribe.

The number and variety of the statues is unusual, said Dodson, adding that "the rest of the decoration is made up of scenes intended to magically recreate the environment in the next world, in particular the production of food to sustain the dead for eternity, and their receipt of offerings."

The team of Egyptian archaeologists working here found five shafts in the tomb. One was open and held nothing inside, but the others are sealed—a situation that offers exciting possibilities. Work on the sealed shafts could begin as early as tomorrow, according to news reports.

“This shaft should lead to a coffin or a sarcophagus of the owner of the tomb,” said Waziri, indicating his best guess for the location of finds to come. Other shafts might hold the grave goods of the deceased.

The high priest’s tomb lies along a ridge that has been only partly excavated. Even more discoveries may turn up when digging resumes there in January.

This story has been updated with comment from Aidan Dodson.