A black granite sarcophagus that was found last May in the district of Sidi Gaber in Alexandria during preparations to dig the foundation of a building has finally revealed who its occupants were.
The sarcophagus was found when the contractor in charge of erecting the building applied to the local building authority for a permit and, as is standard practice, had to obtain approval from the local archaeological authority first. Probes disclosed the sarcophagus which was 2.75 metres long, 1.65 metres wide, and 1.85 metres high; and weighed some 30 tons.
By the time the sarcophagus was lifted above ground last July, an arduous process which had to be done with a lot of care lest any damage occurs, conjecture had abounded on who could have possibly been buried in it. The Alexandria district of Sidi Gaber is known to lie above the eastern necropolis which dates back to the Greco Roman era that extended from the 4th BC century to the 7th AD century. The region includes the al-Shatby necropolis which is home to the oldest Ptolemaic tombs that go back to the late 4th century BC, circa 360 BC. Cut into rock and patterned after charming old Greek houses, they are the oldest example of Alexandria-style burials.
Alexander the Great?
The fact that the sarcophagus was of huge size, made of granite which was a costly material that had to be moved from as further south as Aswan, and was found close to al-Shatby necropolis gave way to wide-scale conjecture. The international media surmised that the body inside the sarcophagus might have belonged to none other but Alexander the Great who died in 323BC and is known to have been buried in Alexandria, but his tomb has never been found.
Egyptian archaeologists, however, were quick to refute the claim that it was Alexander the Great, explaining that the black granite sarcophagus was found at a depth of 6 metres underground, which is a depth that concerns the late Roman period; whereas remains of the Greek era in Alexandria lie some 15 metres underground. According to Mona Haggag, Professor of Greco Roman history at Alexandria University and Head of the Alexandria Antiquities Society, the sarcophagus, even though of huge size, was absolutely free of any ornamentation, which made it highly unlikely that it should belong to someone as great as Alexander. Historically, Dr Haggag said, Alexander was buried in a gold sarcophagus and later moved into a glass one; then underwent several moves which are not entirely known to us now.
Another archaeologist, Salah Aboshanab said that historical documents describe the grandeur of the original tomb built for Alexander, and its location at the intersection of the two main streets at the centre of the ancient city. In modern times, he said, only the location of one of these streets is known; this is why, he said, archaeologists have missed the tomb. Dr Aboshanab said he had done copious research on that topic and claims he has a good idea where the tomb might lie.
It did not help that, once the sarcophagus was opened, it emitted an odious odour and was found to contain water of a strange reddish colour. This led to popular conjecture that this was red mercury, believed to have been used to cast spells and curses. But experts explained this off by saying that it was the result of years of sewage water seeping into the sarcophagus and mixing with the remnants of the wrappings around the skeletons inside.
The sarcophagus was finally moved to Alexandria National Museum where it underwent, together with the skeletons found inside, a series of investigations and studies. Yesterday, 19 August, saw Mustafa Waziri, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities announce that the preliminary studies carried out by a team of researchers headed by Zeinab Hasheesh, Director of the Department of the Skeleton Remains Studies at the Ministry of Antiquities were concluded.
The studies, Dr Waziri said, have determined the gender and age of the skeletons found inside the Alexandria sarcophagus, according to the anatomy of the skulls, pelvis and longitudinal bones through anthropological examination.
He said that the team had also found gold sheets within the bones of the skeletons and are now under study.
Nadia Kheider, Head of the Central Department of Antiquities of Lower Egypt, said that the first skeleton belonged to a woman aged 20 to 25 years, around 160 to 164cm tall. The second belonged to a man between 35 and 39, his height ranging from 160 to 165.5cm. The third skeleton, she said, belonged to a man aged 40 to 44 years, between 179 and 184.5cm tall.
Dr Hasheesh pointed out that studies on the right bone at the back area of a skull showed a rounded cavity of 1.7cm wide which reveals that the owner of this skull has survived a long period with this cavity which was clearly the result of surgery. She said that this was probably a “trepanation” surgery where a burr hole is drilled or scraped into the human skull to treat health problems related to intracranial diseases or release pressured blood build-up from an injury. “This surgery is the oldest surgical intervention ever known since pre-history, but was well-known, even if rarely used, in ancient Egypt,” she said.
Dr Waziri explained that the burial process inside the sarcophagus was most probably carried out in two consecutive phases, since the skeletons were laid on top of one another.
Ayman Ashmawy, Head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector said that the researchers have cleaned up all the remains found inside the sarcophagus and archaeologically documented all the bones and skulls as well as the gold sheets.
Now, he said, several analyses are being carried out on the water to discover more about its components.
Dr Waziri asserted that studies are ongoing, including DNA tests and CT-Scans on the skeletal bones to know whether those buried had been family relations.
20 August 2018