Human remains from a second dynasty underground burial chamber (Image: Helwan Project, Macquarie University)
Twenty previously unexcavated tombs, which are several hundred years older than the great pyramids of Giza, are shedding light on the first complex societies on Earth.
Archaeologists have found ancient Egyptians up to 5000 years old curled up in the foetal position in what would have been ancient Egypt's first capital city, Memphis.
Dr Christiana Kohler of the Australian Centre for Egyptology at Sydney's Macquarie University and team unearthed the tombs during a recent excavation at Helwan, 25 kilometres south of Cairo.
"It's a veritable city of dead," said Kohler of the Helwan necropolis, which consists of 100 hectares of 10,000 tombs from Egypt's first and second dynasties.
Kohler said the site was the largest and the most significant site from what archaeologists call the earliest historical period.
This is the time when kings took over from village chiefs and a time that gives researchers an insight into the development of complex society.
"When we talk about complex society we not only have a king at the tip of the social pyramid but we also have an aristocracy and a middle class of people like craftsmen and priests and minor bureaucrats and the base of the pyramid that comprises labourers and farmers," she said.
The Helwan necropolis provides remains of a cross-section of people, buried in tombs of a range in sizes, which Kohler says reflects the different wealth and status of the people buried in them.
"People took all their belongings with them into the grave because they expected to be reborn in the after life in exactly the same form as they were during lifetime," she said.
[Poor man's grave]
A poor man, buried in the foetal position, holding food in his hand (Image: Helwan Project, Macquarie University)
One tomb was no more than a hole in the ground, less than one cubic metre in size, and contained the remains of a poor man.
"The family couldn't even afford to put a pottery vessel into his grave and all they could do was give him literally a piece of bread that he was still holding in his right hand in front of his head," Kohler said.
The 'bread' she referred to was a piece of dark organic matter. Although it is yet to be analysed, Kohler said it was obviously food preserved by Egypt's dry conditions.
By contrast, someone high up in the hierarchy could get a tomb of 20 cubic metres or even 100 cubic metres. She said one high-status tomb previously excavated was lined with 2000 kilogram limestone slabs.
The latest tombs revealed the remains of a "very tall" person, Kohler said, and a woman with a shell bracelet on her left arm.
"It's unusual to find jewellery still on the individuals because that's what the thieves were after," she said.
"We also found a very ugly guy. His facial features, his skull, was a bit deformed," said Kohler, who said the team had yet to find out whether this was due to trauma or disease.
[The Helwan site]
Urban development is quickly swallowing the Helwan necropolis site (Image: Helwan Project, Macquarie University
It seems that the people at Helwan were healthy, even if they were poor, according to the physical anthropologist on Kohler's team.
"She was amazed at how healthy our people are and how well built they are," said Kohler.
Kohler said it was rare to find tombs in Egypt that had not yet been excavated.
"When you think that in Egypt there have been excavators for at least 150 years and that every year they have about 100 international teams working there, I personally still find it quite mind-boggling that we still have the opportunity to uncover undiscovered tombs."
Kohler was concerned that the Helwan necropolis site was being destroyed rapidly. A military base surrounds it and there are encroaching high rises and illegal shanty towns.
"The site itself once covered 100 hectares and today, as we speak, this size has been reduced by half," she said. "Every year when we come back to Egypt, yet another bit has been taken away from it."
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