Back in July, Egyptian archaeologists dared to open a strange granite sarcophagus, finding three skeletons soaking in an unsightly reddish-brown liquid. Scientists have now completed a preliminary analysis of the coffin’s contents, offering new insights into the tomb’s 2,000-year-old occupants.
The granite sarcophagus was discovered in the Sidi Gaber district of Alexandria, Egypt, on July 1, and it was opened 16 days later despite warnings of a possible curse. Because the coffin dates back to the 3rd century BC, Egyptian archaeologists thought the sarcophagus might contain the body of Alexander the Great. Sadly, no. Rather, the coffin contained a jumble of skeletons, several gold sheets, and a surprising amount of sewer water, which had trickled in from a crack in the coffin.
After cleaning the remains and carefully documenting the bones, a team of researchers from the Central Department of Antiquities of Lower Egypt has completed their preliminary analysis of the coffin’s contents. Mostafa Waziry, head of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, announced some of the details earlier this week, saying the coffin contained a female and two males, along with three gold sheets bearing mysterious inscriptions.
Speaking to Ahram Online, Nadia Kheider, head of the Central Department of Antiquities of Lower Egypt, said the woman was between 20 and 25 years old when she died.
As for the two males, one died when he was between the age of 20 and 25, the other dying in his early forties.
One of the men had a small hole, about 17 millimeters wide, in the back of his skull. When the archaeologists first examined the skull, they figured the injury was caused by a sharp object like an arrow, but the man lived for a long time with this cavity, suggesting it was the result of an early form of brain surgery known as trepanation. Further work will be required to assess its true nature, but if true, it would represent a rare example of this surgery in ancient Egypt. No cause of death could be determined for any of the corpses.
Waziry told Ahram Online that none of the three skeletons belonged to a Ptolemaic or Roman royal family. No inscription or cartouche was found on the coffin, nor did it contain any silver or gold metallic masks, small statues, amulets, or other items typically associated with royal burials from this time period. The coffin and its contents still need to be dated, but it’s likely from the early Ptolemaic period, which began in 323 after the death of Alexander the Great, according to the researchers. Their best guess right now is that that the coffin dates back to between 304 and 30 BC, and that the individuals weren’t placed in the coffin at the same time.
As for the strange reddish color of the liquid in the sarcophagus, the researchers say it was caused by sewage water mixing in with the skeleton’s wrappings. The researchers plan to conduct a chemical analysis of the waste water to determine its components, as noted in Ahram Online.
From here, the three skeletons will be taken to Alexandria National Museum for further study and dating. The bones will be subject to DNA tests, which could yield important genetic information about the individuals and possible family relations. As for the granite sarcophagus, Ahram Online reports that it will be restored and moved to the museum.
As a final, strange aside, the discovery of the reddish-brown water inside the sarcophagus prompted a strange request; an international petition, which garnered thousands of signatures, demanded that the Egyptian government allow people to drink the liquid. Yeah, probably not a good idea given that the water came in from a nearby sewage trench.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the trepanation hole was found on the female specimen.