Unexpected Discoveries from Royal Tomb Excavations


Despite centuries of research and study, thousands of unexcavated areas still exist at the locations of civilizations long past, and we’re still waiting for the discovery of several important tombs such as that of Genghis Khan and the Egyptian Queen, Nefertiti. In many instances, excavation efforts are hampered by cities and buildings that have been built on top of the ancient sites.

Yet, from what we’ve uncovered so far, it is perhaps the royal tombs of ancient rulers that archaeologists find most fascinating. These tombs were the focus of major investments as ancient rulers employed only the best craftsmen and secured the finest materials to ensure adequate provision for the afterlife. Our discoveries to date have provided us with an unimaginable wealth of ancient artifacts and materials and every so often, a totally unexpected discovery.

10. The Death Pits within the Royal Tombs of Ur

The Royal Cemetery of Ur, hosted the remains of several ancient Mesopotamian kings and queens who ruled during the Early Dynastic Period IIIA, around 2600-2450 BC. The site received major attention and intense coverage during its excavations which started in 1922 and continued up until 1934. Over 2000 burials took place at the ancient cemetery and 16 Royal tombs were discovered. The discoveries of the royal tombs and their magnificent artifacts had everyone spell-bound until evidence of human sacrifice on a grand scale surfaced.

Several “death pits” were uncovered below the royal tombs, containing anything between 7 and 74 bodies. Archaeologists at the time originally believed that the attendants drank poison and suffered minimally, however, later examinations and reconstructions of several skulls confirmed that the attendants were in fact murdered with a sharp instrument during a very elaborate funerary ritual, their bodies were then heated, treated with mercury to delay decomposition, dressed and placed in ceremonial rows. The later findings continue to intrigue scholars and archaeologists alike, as many believe these sacrifices were a theatre of public cruelty, clearly drawing a line between the haves and the have nots.

9. Liquid Mercury in Mexico

Teotihuacan was the largest city in ancient America. Although the verdict is still out on who built the magnificent city, it is estimated that it had over 200,000 residents during its heyday. Located less than 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Mexico, hundreds of excavations have taken place at the site since its discovery, but archeologists never discovered any royal tombs. As such, the excitement was high when evidence finally surfaced of a possible royal tomb located beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Painstaking tunnel excavations underneath the temple began around 2009 but had to be halted in 2015 when archaeologists finally came upon and opened a chamber located at the bottom of the tunnel. The chamber was filled with liquid mercury – a complete and utter surprise.

The metallic element was an unforeseen but promising indication of what lies behind the ancient chamber. It is no easy feat to mine mercury, and at the time it was buried it was one of the rarest materials going around. The fact that such a large quantity was left behind could indicate that the chamber was set up to protect a very sacred space. As the ancient builders of the site left no written records, archaeologists can’t be sure that its people were ruled by a king, but all involved are rooting for the remains of their ancient ruler. 

8. A Missing Mummy

After discovering the tomb of Ramses I in 1817, Italian explorer and pioneer archaeologist Giovanni Belzoni noticed a cavity leading to another vast chamber beneath. Upon excavating, the team was astonished at the magnificent tomb they uncovered. The burial chamber’s ceiling was covered in beautiful artwork depicting the heavens while paintings on the walls portrayed intricate scenes from the Book of Amduat and a collection of prayers and invocations from the Litany of Re. However, to their dismay, the room only contained a spectacularly empty alabaster sarcophagus and no royal mummy.

The sarcophagus eventually made its way to London, England where it became famous for its decorations depicting scenes from the Book of Gates. In fact, it was so splendid, that it is regarded as one of the most important finds related to Egypt’s 19th Dynasty ever to be discovered. For several years the magnificent tomb would be linked to various Pharaohs but it was only in 1828 that the French scholar Jean-François Champollion finally deciphered the tomb’s hieroglyphics and were able to identify it as the tomb of Seti I, the father of Ramses II. However, it would be another 81 years before the mummy of Seti I was finally discovered in another tomb where it had been hidden in antiquity to keep it safe from grave robbers.

7. 12 Royal Mummies inside a Single Tomb

On March 9, 1898, the distinguished French Egyptologist Victor Loret discovered the tomb of Amenhotep II in the Valley of the Kings. Although the tomb came with its fair share of ancient treasures, it was something far more priceless hidden away in the upper and lower sections of his tomb that caught the world’s imagination. 12 Royal mummies that were moved from their original burial places in antiquity were hidden in Amenhotep II’s tomb in order to ensure their safety.

The large tomb labeled KV35, had a complex layout and became the first tomb in the Valley of the Kings to contain an intact pharaonic mummy within its burial chamber. Identified by the inscriptions left on their wrappings, the mummies were eventually identified as that of Amenhotep II (the original owner of the tomb), Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III, Merneptah, Seti II, Siptah, Ramesses IV, Ramesses V, Ramesses VI, Queen Tiye (identified through DNA testing in 2010), a prince many believe to be Webensenu, son of Amenhotep II, and the highly controversial “Younger Lady”, initially believed to be Nefertiti but later proven to have been the daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye. 

6. The Oldest String Instrument in Human History

At over 4,500 years, the lyre is regarded as the modern harp’s ancestor and is acknowledged to be the oldest string instrument in human history. During the excavations at the Royal Tombs of Ur in 1929, sir Leonard Woolley and his team of archeologists came across three lyres placed within one of the death pits. The remains of a multitude of servants – including the musicians – were found next to their instruments and according to the archeologists of the time, it almost appeared as if the musicians continued playing their instruments until the very end. More harrowing was the discovery of one little girl who seemed to have been terribly frightened as she was still clutching her golden headband in both hands. 

After its discovery, the three lyres were sent to different museums, namely the British Museum in London, the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, and the museum of Baghdad. In a strange turn of events, the dispersion of the lyres ensured the instruments’ continued existence when the museum of Baghdad was looted in April 2003 and the golden lyre ended up vandalized and in several pieces. Luckily the bull’s golden head was kept safe in a vault and the instrument could be restored to its former glory over a six-year period. 

5. The Mystery Gibbon in Lady Xia’s Tomb

Buried about 2,200 years ago, Lady Xia was the grandmother of the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, the ruler most famous for his terracotta army that continues to guard his grave to this day. Excavated during 2004, the tomb contained a wealth of priceless artifacts including gold, silver, jade, gold, decorated ceramics, and even two carriages and the 12 horses that would have drawn them. 

Ceremonial pits in the tomb also contained the bones of several exotic animals including a leopard, a lynx, an Asian black bear, several cranes – and one very conspicuous and strange gibbon. In fact, the poor ape’s skull was so unusual that researchers have recently concluded that it belonged to a now-extinct, genus and species. The newly described ape has been named “Junzi imperialis,” a name that gives credit to the location of its discovery as well as a nod to the gibbon’s popular portrayal as a “scholarly gentleman” (which is the English translation of Junzi) as it appears in ancient Chinese mythology. Yet the most important detail of this discovery is the clear and undeniable evidence of humanity’s early exploitation of exotic creatures, a detail that is helping researchers understand exactly how we influenced past primate extinctions.

4. The Mysterious Iron Dagger in Tutenkhamen’s Tomb

When the boy king, Tutankhamen, started his journey to the great beyond, his loyal attendants sealed him into his tomb with over 5,000 priceless artifacts. None of them realized that one of those artifacts would become a matter of great interest and speculation over 3,300 years later upon the tomb’s discovery in 1922. Found within the young king’s wrappings and delicately placed on his thigh was an ornate silver dagger with a stunning golden handle and sheath. The discovery of the dagger garnered very special attention, as iron was considered to be much more valuable than gold in ancient times. To compound the matter, the first mentions related to metallurgy in the region also dated much later, to the first millennium BC, as such the dagger almost seemed to be completely out of place.

Examinations of the dagger during the 1970s and 1990s turned out to be either controversial or inconclusive and it wasn’t until 2016 that a team of Egyptian and Italian researchers decided to take a fresh look at the blade. The scientists took advantage of a new technology called portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to gain insight into the blade’s exact composition and their findings left the world stunned. The blade was made from a very specific iron, nickel, and cobalt composition, and was an almost 100% identical match to that of a meteor found in Marsa Matruh, a city just west of Alexandria. . 

3. Jade Armor for the Afterlife

The first documented references to jade burial suits can be traced back to the Byzantine Period, although some archeological evidence pointing to their existence at least 500 years earlier have been uncovered during excavations. Nevertheless, their actual existence remained unconfirmed up to the discovery of the tomb of Princess Dou Wan and Prince Liu Sheng of the Han Dynasty in 1968. Widely regarded as one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century, the perfectly preserved state of their tomb might have something to do with the fact that it was discovered behind two brick walls, as well as another layer of iron and a stone-packed corridor.

Each jade suit was fashioned with more than 2,000 individual jade pieces and sewn together with gold (the prince) and silver (the princess). Since the discovery of the royal tomb, only a few other jade suits have been discovered. The scarcity of the suits is directly related to how expensive they were to make, not to mention labor intensive – it would have taken a jadesmith anything between ten and fifteen years to make a single suit. Shortly after the death of the prince and princess, the production of jade suits were also forbidden by Emperor Wen of Wei as looters would rob tombs in order to burn the suits to reclaim its gold. The suits of the prince and princess can be found in the Hebei Provincial Museum.

2. Tutenkhamen’s Unborn Daughters

King Tutankhamen may have died while he was very young, but what many may not know was that the young king was old enough to have children – and in all probability had several before his untimely death. Among the thousands of artifacts found in King Tut’s tomb, one would shine an exceptional light on the ancient Egyptians’ treatment of unborn children. A plain wooden box that measured only 24 inches (61 centimeters) was discovered to contain two tiny coffins. Both coffins had been treated with the utmost care as with all the dead in ancient Egypt before being entombed with the king. The only lacking element was names, with both coffins simply inscribed with the name “the Osiris.”

Inside the coffins archaeologists found the tiny remains of two unborn fetuses, later confirmed through DNA testing to have been King Tut’s unborn daughters, both born prematurely. Autopsies were performed in 1932 and later examinations in 1978 suggested that at least one of the fetuses had a congenital skeletal abnormality known as Sprengel’s deformity as well as scoliosis and spina bifida. 

1. A Giant Ship

In 1954, the Egyptian archeologist Kamal el Mallakh had a hunch that something might be hiding under the stone wall on the south side of the Great Pyramid. While digging, he came across a layer of earth and wood chips, powdered limestone, and weirdly enough, charcoal. Mallakh continued digging until he had uncovered a total of 40 limestone blocks that had all been lined up perfectly in antiquity. To his surprise, it seemed as if the stones were covering a rock-hewn pit. It was upon his peering into the depths below that Mallakh realized he had found something truly spectacular.

The 144-foot-long (46.3 meters) ship Mallakh uncovered is today better known as the Khufu boat, pharaoh’s ship, or the solar barge. Realizing the immensity of his find, Mallakh took over two years to locate and carefully remove each of the ship’s 1,224 individual pieces. After its removal, a fellow Egyptian and conservator for the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, Hag Ahmed Youssef Moustafa, put a team together to start the careful reconstruction of the ancient vessel. Carbon testing on the ship’s cedar-wood – imported in antiquity from Lebanon, has shown it to be over 2,500 years old, a true testimony to the craftsmanship of its ancient builders. The Khufu ship is preserved and on display at the Giza Solar boat museum.

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