Aswan's Buried Secrets: 30 Tombs Unlock Ancient City's Past

A clay sculpture found inside an Aswan tomb.(Image credit: EIMAWA/MoTA)

Archaeologists in Aswan, an ancient Egyptian city on the Nile, have unearthed a treasure trove of history – more than 30 tombs built into a hillside.  

Dating back to the Greco-Roman period, these tombs offer a glimpse into the lives and deaths of the people who lived in this vibrant trading center.

The discoveries include family burials, mummies, and various artifacts like decorated clay vessels, offering tables, and even materials used for creating mummy casings.  

These finds paint a picture of a wealthy and important city that served as a hub for trade between northern and subtropical Africa.

"It was a rich place, an important place," said Patrizia Piacentini, the lead archaeologist on the project.  She highlights the city's significance as a crossroads for trade and a witness to millennia of Egyptian history.

A vestibule to a late Graeco-Roman tomb was uncovered during an excavation project in Aswan. The archaeologists excavated more than 30 tombs out of the 300 they have managed to map out.(Image credit: EIMAWA/MoTA)

Remains of mummies from the late Greek and Roman period were discovered in tombs in Aswan, Egypt. (Image credit: EIMAWA/MoTA)

The discovery began in 2015 after illegal excavations in the area.  Authorities brought in archaeologists to investigate, and soon they found tombs dating from the late Greek and Roman periods.  Piacentini, along with a large team of Egyptian and Italian researchers, began a detailed survey in 2019.

One of the most striking features is the unique layout of the tombs.  Unlike other tombs from this period, which were typically two or three levels high, these tombs were built into the rock face, creating a vertical necropolis with at least 10 levels.  The researchers even found oil lamps, suggesting that mourners illuminated the tombs during funerary rituals.

These tombs were used for burials over a long period, from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century AD.  This spans several historical eras, including Persian rule, the reign of the Ptolemaic dynasty founded by Alexander the Great's general, and finally Roman rule when Egypt became part of the vast empire.  

The social hierarchy of the time is also reflected in the placement of the tombs, with elites occupying the top levels and the middle class buried in the lower strata.

Analyses of the mummies revealed a high number of children, with 30-40% being as young as newborns.  This suggests the presence of diseases that may have wiped out entire families.  

Interestingly, the team also found two mummies initially thought to be a mother and son, but later determined to be brothers buried with their parents.

Archaeologists led by Patrizia Piacentini observing remains of mummies retrieved from tombs in Aswan. (Image credit: EIMAWA/MoTA)

To learn more about the causes of death, the team partnered with medical professionals.  X-rays, CT scans, and DNA analysis revealed that anemia and infectious diseases were the most common culprits, even among the wealthy.  

Spinal examinations even confirmed the presence of tuberculosis in some individuals.  Further research is ongoing to gain a deeper understanding of the diseases that plagued this ancient population.

This discovery has been hailed as "exceptional" and "very promising" by Piacentini.  Her team is committed to continuing their work and uncovering the stories of the diverse people who lived in this city.  With at least 300 tombs already mapped in a vast necropolis, there's much more to be learned about Aswan's rich past.


The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Penguin Classics), Illustrated Edition

On Sale
      $17.99 (55% off)

A unique collection of funerary texts from a wide variety of sources, dating from the 15th to the 4th century BC