Archive for July 13th, 2020

Tomb of Cleopatra definitely not found

Monday, July 13th, 2020

A burial chamber containing two mummies that were originally covered in gold leaf has been unearthed at Taposiris Magna on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. The tomb was sealed, but water penetration left the remains in poor condition and largely disintegrated the gold leaf. For them to have been buried in such rich outerwear, they must have been individuals of high rank. This is being promoted as a key clue to the location of the tomb of Cleopatra. Spoiler: yeah no.

The head of the excavation, Kathleen Martínez, is actually a lawyer. From her own reading in her time off from running her legal practice Dominican Republic, Martínez developed a theory that Cleopatra’s tomb was at Taposiris Magna and persuaded Zahi Hawass to let her look for it. When she first pitched the idea to him in 2005, she said to give her two months and she’d find the elusive tomb of Cleopatra. Fourteen years of excavations later, the only thing connected to Cleopatra that has been found are 200 gold coins bearing her profile.

Very little archaeological material directly related to Cleopatra has survived, most of it consisting of coins issued during her reign. The written sources have no information about the location of her tomb. Plutarch’s description of her mausoleum focuses on the riches it contained and the great drama of her and Mark Antony’s final days. He does say that Octavian allowed Cleopatra to be embalmed and entombed with Mark Antony in the royal tomb, but nothing about where it was.

Alexandria itself was hit hard by natural disasters. What was once the royal palace of Alexandria is under water now, as is much of the ancient city, and what didn’t sink was cannibalized for building materials. The dynastic tomb of the Ptolemies was built inside the palace precinct.

Located 20 miles west of Alexandria, Taposiris Magna was an important port town in Ptolemaic Egypt. A large limestone temple was constructed there by Ptolemy IV Philopator (r. 221-204 B.C.), who also built the dynastic tomb in Alexandria. It was dedicated to Osiris (hence “Taposiris”) and was believed to one of the spots where Osiris’ dismembered body parts were buried after his murder by his brother Set.

Martínez’ theory is that Cleopatra built a mausoleum for herself and Mark Antony in the temple precinct because she identified strongly with the goddess Isis, consort of Osiris, and would have wanted them buried together as incarnations of the deities. As for how she would have accomplished this without Octavian’s knowledge when he ordered her buried with Mark Antony in Alexandria, she arranged it with priests before her suicide. Once Octavian moved on, the priests moved both bodies to a secret tomb under the Taposiris Magna temple courtyard.

In a decade and a half of excavations, not only has the fabled tomb not turned up, but in all fairness, neither have any others. The chamber with the pair of mummies is the first tomb ever found inside the temple.

The mummies have been X-rayed, establishing that they are male and female. One suggestion is they were priests who played a key role in maintaining the pharaohs’ power. One bears an image of a scarab, symbolising rebirth, painted in gold leaf.

In conclusion, two priests were found buried at a temple that continues to show no evidence whatsoever of the presence of the tomb of Cleopatra.

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