Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Undiscovered pyramids show up on satellite imagery

A guide stands near the Djoser's step pyramid in Saqqara, south of Cairo. Satellite imagery has shown at least two buried pyramids nearby, as well as tombs and other buildings.

U.S. archaeologists have used satellite imaging to discover 17 pyramids buried beneath silt and sand in Egypt.

The research, supported by a BBC documentary unit, also revealed more than 1,000 tombs and 3,000 other buildings dating to the time of the Pharaohs. On the satellite images, kiln-fired bricks used to build ancient cities can be distinguished from the earth covering it.

"I couldn't believe we could locate so many sites all over Egypt," said Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who led the research team. "To excavate a pyramid is the dream of every archaeologist."

"These are just the sites [close to] the surface," Parcak told the BBC. "There are many thousands of additional sites that the Nile has covered over with silt. This is just the beginning of this kind of work."

Zahi Hawass, Egypt's head of antiquities, expressed skepticism about the findings in an interview with Reuters, saying only traditional archeology — involving digging on the sites —will prove the existence of the ancient buildings.

Egyptian authorities have agreed to a trial excavation at the ancient site of Saqqara, 30 km south of Cairo, which is already known for its "step" pyramids, and for tombs that recently opened to the public.

A French archeological team found two buried pyramids on the site, confirming the accuracy of the satellite imaging.

The infrared imagery, taken from 690 km above the earth, is showing the ghostly outlines of entire cities, including Tanis, once the capital of ancient Egypt.

Parcak's team spent more than a year poring over existing satellite imagery of Egypt's Nile Delta from NASA and from commercial satellites to make their discoveries. Her pioneering work is being hailed as a breakthrough in pinpointing archaeological sites for excavation.

The BBC documentary, Egypt's Lost Cities, was broadcast Monday in the U.K.

Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Zahi Hawass opened seven tombs in the New Kingdom cemetery to visitors on Monday.

Egypt has opened to visitors seven ancient tombs dating back more than 3,000 years, on a site in south Saqqara, about 30 km south of Cairo.

The tombs date from the New Kingdom, a period that lasted from 16th to 11th century B.C., and include chambers for Maya, the treasurer of King Tutankhamen, and Horemheb, King Tut's general.

Zahi Hawass, Egypt's Minister of Antiquities, said he hopes to draw more tourists to the site, which is close to the Step Pyramid of Djoser.

The tombs have been investigated and restored by a team of Dutch archeologists who began work on the site in the 1970s. Some of the chambers were first discovered in 1843 by German explorer Richard Lepsius, but were not fully excavated.

A labourer works on the partly damaged statue of Maya and his wife Merit in south Saqqara, Egypt. A labourer works on the partly damaged statue of Maya and his wife Merit in south Saqqara, Egypt. Nasser Nasser/Associated Press

The south Saqqara area was a necropolis for Memphis, which succeeded Luxor (Thebes) as ancient Egypt's capital under the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Tutankhamen's father.

After his death, the country was in turmoil and the young King Tut relied on Maya and Horemheb for their financial and diplomatic skills as he moved the religious capital back to Luxor.

"Maya was responsible for restoring order in Egypt, while his colleague Horemheb restored order abroad," the antiquities ministry said in a statement.

Maya's temple, which was unfinished, features images of Maya and his wife Merit. Horemheb built a tomb at the south Saqqara site, but was buried at the famous Valley of the Kings on Luxor's west bank as he later became a king.

The tomb of Merneith — steward of the Temple of Aten under Akhenaten — is built of mud brick encased in limestone blocks and features friezes of metal workers and chapels for offerings.

Other tombs were built for Ptahemwia, who was the royal butler under both Akhenaten and Tutankhamen, and for Pay and his son Raia. Father and, later, son oversaw the harem during King Tut's reign.