Archaeologists’ Ancient Egyptian ‘find of a lifetime’ beneath Cairo’s streets

Egyptologist discusses ‘surprise’ hieroglyphic discovery

The Western world didn’t become aware of the extent of Egypt’s ancient civilisation until the late 19th century.

It was back then that English Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie began his extensive portfolio of work in the country, with the help of local experts and diggers.

His first major find came when he uncovered fragments of a colossal statue of Ramses II, one of the great Egyptian pharaohs.

Fast-forward 100 years later and a team of archaeologists digging in a north-east Cairo neighbourhood that was once home to Ramses.

Coming to the end of their five-year dig, the team had found little in the way of anything significant — but that’s when things changed.

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They had already found a 3,000-year-old temple built by Ramses, but at the far end of the site, just as the team was about to wrap things up, one of the diggers struck something solid in the ground.

What was eventually unearthed was documented during the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, ‘Secrets: The Pharaoh in the Suburbs’.

Here, Dr Dietrich Raue, Co-Director of the Heliopolis Project, explained: “Suddenly the workmen told us there was a big stone.”

Unclearing the mud, a giant statue slowly began to appear, and it was soon clear that the workmen were standing on top of a chest.

First, a large torso was revealed, made of quartzite, one of the most precious materials in Ancient Egypt, and then a giant head was unearthed.

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“The archaeologists realised they had just made the find of a lifetime — the giant statue of a pharaoh,” the documentary’s narrator noted.

Researchers at first believed the statue belonged to Ramses — the size, quartzite stone and intricate detail of the carving hinted that it belonged to one of the greats.

Yet, a series of hieroglyphs cut into the rock’s surface revealed a different owner.

Dr Raue explained: “We found four hieroglyphs, the quality of the inscription is amazing, it looks like if you’d cut through a piece of butter.

“But you are dealing with one of the hardest materials Ancient Egypt has to offer.”

To their disbelief, the hieroglyphs revealed the statue to be of a pharaoh relatively unknown outside circles of Egyptology: Psamtik I.

It was largely thought that Psamtik was a relatively small pharaoh, but the size of the statue suggested he had a far greater part to play in history than previously understood.

Accounts of Psamtik are limited and vague. Researchers know he ruled Egypt for 54 years from 664 BC, a time in which Egypt had lost its superpower status and had begun its slow decline into poverty.

“These were not the glory days anymore,” Dr Chris Naunton, an Egyptologist, explained.

“Egypt wasn’t as wealthy as it had been, it didn’t control the same territory, it didn’t have the same empire.

“We had thought that up until now that the pharaoh didn’t really have the means to build statues on this scale. But this statue changes all of that.”

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