Archaeology Odyssey 7:1, January/February 2004

Past Perfect: Opening the Tomb of the Sacred Bull

Archaeology Odyssey

In the 1850s, the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette Made a Surprising Discovery in the Necropolis at Saqqara

While working as a teacher in Boulogne, France, Auguste Mariette (1821–1881) became intrigued by Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of ancient hieroglyphics (in 1822). He moved to Paris to study Egyptology and soon accepted a position as an auxiliary curator at the Louvre. In 1850, he was commissioned by the French government to hunt down rare Coptic manuscripts in Egypt—a project that proved fruitless. Mariette then began digging at the ancient necropolis of Saqqara, where he spent four years uncovering the Serapeum (as related in the following excerpt), a building first described by the first-century A.D. Greek geographer Strabo. (The Serapeum was the burial place of the sacred Apis bull, which the Egyptians believed was an earthly manifestation of Osiris, the god of the dead.) In 1858 the Egyptian viceroy appointed Mariette director-general of the newly created Egyptian Antiquities Service. Five years later, Mariette opened the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which today is one of the great archaeological museums in the world. Following his death in 1881, Mariette was named an honorary pasha and buried in the museum’s courtyard.

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