by Ed Whelan

According to the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, there had been a remarkable find in the coastal city of Alexandria. During a routine excavation, experts have uncovered a Ptolemaic black stone sarcophagus. It is being hailed as a major find as it can provide insights into the great Hellenistic period in Egypt and its unique culture.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty

Alexander the Great conquered Egypt with a ‘mixed army of Macedonians and Greeks in 332 BC’, according to the  Encyclopaedia Britannica . After the death of the great conqueror, Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals, ruled it as an independent kingdom. He and his successors created a powerful state in Egypt and made Alexandria their capital and one of the ancient world’s great cultural centers. The Ptolemies encouraged Greeks and Macedonians to settle in their kingdom and they formed the elite in Egyptian society.

The Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt in 200 BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt in 200 BC. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Ptolemies were accepted as their rulers by the Egyptians. While the dynasty retained their Macedonian identity and saw themselves as Hellenic rulers, they also adopted many of the cultural practices of Egypt. The dynasty ruled from 323 BC to 30 BC, until the death of the legendary Queen Cleopatra. Their legacy was a very Hellenized culture that survived in Egypt until the Muslim invasion in the 7 th century AD.

The Sarcophagus

An Egyptian archaeological team discovered the tomb, according to the Indian Express , while working on the  ‘installation of sensors at a privately-owned land in Alexandria’s Sidi Gaber neighborhood before its owner laid down building foundations.’ It is typical, in Egypt for archaeologists from the Ministry of Antiquities to conduct an excavation before any building project, as it is required by the government.  The archaeologists were stunned when during their routine work they came across a burial that had lain undisturbed for over two millennia.

The sarcophagus had lain untouched for two millennia. (Ministry of Antiquities)

The sarcophagus had lain untouched for two millennia. ( Ministry of Antiquities )

The burial held a large black granite sarcophagus dating back to the Ptolemaic era based on its design. The Daily Mail reports, that the archaeologists believe that it is ‘the largest granite sarcophagus ever found in Alexandria’.  The black stone coffin stands at approximately 6 feet (1.83 m) tall and over 5. 5 feet (1.65 m) wide. The sheer size of the granite tomb has stunned archaeologists.

In the burial was also discovered the remains of a large alabaster bust of a man and it seems likely that this represents the person who was interred in the coffin although the identity of the person who was buried in the huge sarcophagus is so far unknown. The bust has deteriorated, and the features of the face cannot be made out, but it is almost certain that it is of a Macedonian or a Greek male. The size of the sarcophagus and the bust would indicate that the person buried in the granite coffin was of high social status.

Deteriorated alabaster bust of a man was found with the coffin. (Ministry of Antiquities)

Deteriorated alabaster bust of a man was found with the coffin. ( Ministry of Antiquities )

Finds from the Ptolemaic Dynasty and the later Roman period are common in Alexandria. Last May, archaeologists unearthed a Roman bathhouse, in it the team found a host of other objects including a statue of a ram and a precious gold coin, depicting the portrait of Ptolemy III. In the city’s bay, archaeologists in the 1990s, according to the Indian Express ‘found the sunken city of Cleopatra’.

The Take Away

The find of the black sarcophagus is exciting experts and it is adding to our knowledge of the funerary art and the burial practices of the Ptolemaic period. Further, investigations of the site are expected to reveal more evidence about the tomb and it is hoped that there could be further discoveries. It is hoped that the identity of the person buried in the stone coffin can be established.

Top image: Black stone sarcophagus found at Alexandria    Source: Ministry of Antiquities

By Ed Whelan