Inventions and Discoveries of the 19th Century #7 : The Deir el-Bahari Mummy Cache

The second Lazarus Longman novel – Silver Tomb deals with Egypt both ancient and nineteenth century. Despite being fiction, it does touch on a real event which was vastly important to the burgeoning field of Egyptology. By the 1880s, the practice of rooting about ancient Egyptian sites for treasure or purchasing it from antique dealers and shipping it out of the country to private collections in Europe and America was outlawed. The study of the country’s past and preservation of its antiquities became a national concern thanks to the likes of Amelia Edwards and the renowned scholar and founder of the Egyptian Department of antiquities, Auguste Mariette.

But in 1881 items began appearing on the black market which clearly came from tombs undiscovered by Egyptologists. Mariette, now nearly blind and approaching death, desperately hoped to discover the source of these artifacts but it was to be under the authority of his successor – Gaston Maspero – that the discovery was to be made.

escondrijo1The source was a single tomb accessible by a vertical shaft located in the vicinity of Deir el-Bahari (northern monastery) of the Theban Necropolis. Most likely it had been the tomb of the High Priest Pinedjem II but had been used as a cache by other priests in antiquity to conceal the mummies and funerary equipment of more than fifty pharaohs and nobles to protect them from grave robbers. A local family from the three villages known collectively as Kurna/Qurna had discovered the tomb some years prior to 1881 and had been steadily selling off artifacts piece by piece. Some internal dissention within the Abd el-Rasoul family led one of their members to talk to the authorities.

Émile Brugsch – assistant curator of the Bulaq Museum – was led to the tomb by one of the Abd el-Rasouls and made the discovery of a lifetime. Among the mummies were the remains of Ramses II; Egypt’s most renowned and, until then, sought after pharaoh. In order to secure the items quickly and avoid any more being stolen, Brugsch cleared the tomb within forty-eight hours. But upon the procession’s arrival in Cairo, word had got around and people turned out in droves to welcome the returning pharaohs.

RAMmummy (1)

In my alternate history novel Silver Tomb, I have played around with the dates of these events, pushing them back to 1886. Émile Brugsch is still the one who discovers the Deir el-Bahari cache with the help of Flinders Petrie, Lazarus Longman and of course, the disgruntled member of the Abd el-Rasoul family.

The Egyptian film The Night of Counting the Years (1969) is based on the discovery of the Deir el-Bahari cache. Also known as Al-Mummia, it is a surreal, dreamlike piece and is considered by many to be Egypt’s finest film. It fictionalises the Abd el-Rasoul family and focuses on Wanis who begins to question the morality of robbing their ancestors in order to sustain themselves.


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