The site of abusir, 12 miles west of Cairo, is riddled with the tombs of ancient Egyptian kings and their officials. For the past 30 years, Miroslav Verner of the Czech Institute of Egyptology in Prague has been working at Abusir, methodically mapping, digging, and preserving. In 1995 his expedition started excavating a giant tomb. Two years later the team finally reached the burial chamber, 80 feet underground, and was amazed to find it untouched, because many such tombs are plundered before archeologists get to them. It was one of the few Egyptian tombs found in 50 years that had never been plundered.
Looters had apparently tried to enter the tomb but failed. Verner could see where their tunnels ended. "They stopped just a few meters above the burial chamber," he says. The shafts leading to the chamber had been dug not through a layer of solid bedrock but through weak, brittle clay. The thieves were probably lucky to have escaped burial themselves. During their dig, Verner and his team built a protective roof of reinforced concrete over the burial chamber.
Inscriptions in the chamber identify the man entombed as Iufaa (ee-you-fa), a high-ranking priest and palace official. Verner found 408 blue-glazed faience ushabti, small figures representing servants of the deceased in the underworld, flanking Iufaa's giant white limestone sarcophagus. Pottery, some of it imported from the Aegean, helped Verner date the tomb to about 525 B.C. Canopic vessels, which hold the mummy's internal organs, had lids shaped like human heads.
The deep chamber was almost at groundwater level, and the resulting humidity nearly destroyed the wood coffin, Iufaa's mummy, and papyrus scrolls. Prayers from the Book of the Dead and other religious texts adorned the sides of the sarcophagus and the chamber walls.
After lifting the two-ton lid of the outer sarcophagus, Verner found a smaller, inner sarcophagus of black-green rock, whose lid was decorated with a man's face. Inside was the wood coffin, badly deteriorated, covered with remnants of blue beaded cloth. The crumbling mummy of Iufaa lay within, his face covered with a gilded stucco death mask. Iufaa was between 25 and 35 when he died, apparently of natural causes.
The tomb is extraordinary because it has remained undisturbed for 2,500 years, says Verner, who expects to find more rooms. "There are other tombs in the vicinity. The future will show how many will be found intact, but I am skeptical. This was an exceptional situation, and an exceptional find. This can happen once in a generation."