Clues Point to Occupant of Ancient 'Mystery' Sarcophagus

A sealed black stone coffin discovered in Egypt has sparked the imagination of the Internet. But who's the likely—or unlikely—owner?

The discovery of this 30-ton sealed granite sarcophagus, believed to be some 2,000 years old, is prompting speculation about its occupant across the Internet, as well as some questionable mummy jokes.

Editor’s note: The sarcophagus was opened on July 19. According to a statement from Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, the skeletons of three adult individuals were found inside. One bears an arrow wound, leading researchers to speculate that they may have been soldiers. The remains will be conserved and studied at the National Museum of Alexandria.

Two weeks since its discovery, the sealed black granite sarcophagus uncovered at an Egyptian construction site—a find that has captured the attention of the Internet and sparked countless mummy jokes about the curse it may unleash—has yet to be opened.

Officials at Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities are reportedly exasperated from fielding countless global press inquiries regarding when and how the stone coffin will be unsealed, and so far they’ve refused, understandably, to speculate who its long-dead occupant may be.

But to narrow down the possibilities, local archaeologists, who are not being named since they are not authorized to speak to National Geographic on behalf of the ministry, share their ideas about whom the sarcophagus likely does not belong to.

Mummies Around the World

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Visitors peer at the mummified remains of Ramses II in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. The pharaoh, who reigned from 1279-1213 B.C., is considered one of the most powerful rulers of the Egyptian Empire.

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The Grauballe Man is a natural mummy formed by centuries of submersion in a peat bog. The man had his throat slit and was thrown in a bog more than 2,000 years ago in what is modern-day Denmark.

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A crocodile mummy offers an enigmatic smile thousands of years after its death. Animals were mummified in ancient Egypt as treasured pets or living representations of a god.

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Jeremy Bentham's clothed skeleton, padded out with hay and topped with a wax head, sits in University College, London. The English philosopher, who died in 1832, asked to be preserved as an ‘auto-icon.’

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An archaeologist removes artifacts near a Inca mummy bundle. Thousands of the 500-year-old bundles contain human remains wrapped in textiles and are sometimes topped with false heads.

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The leg of a bog body found in 1944. Parts of bog bodies, preserved for thouands of years in peat, are often found by farmers cutting the rich organic matter for fuel.

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An Egyptian queen's pet gazelle was readied for eternity with the same lavish care as a member of the royal family. It accompanied its owner to the grave in about 945 B.C.

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An unwrapped Inca mummy in Lima, Peru. Men, women, and children would be wrapped in yards of elaborate textiles and naturally mummify after centuries in the arid climate.

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The mummified remains of two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo rest in Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs. Although she died of pneumonia in 1920, her body is remarkably preserved.

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Hatshepsut, who ruled Egypt from 1479 to 1458 B.C., is best known for being a female leader who was depicted as a male pharaoh. While her tomb was discovered in 1903, her mummy was identified only in 2006.

Tap images for captions

The July 1 account of the discovery in Egypt's state-run newspaper, Al Ahram, was straightforward enough: A large stone sarcophagus—still sealed—was uncovered during a construction survey in the city of Alexandria on Egypt's Mediterranean coast. A worn alabaster head of a man, possibly the coffin's occupant, was found nearby, and the burial site was believed to date from the Ptolemaic period (ca. 323-30 B.C.).

Ancient Egypt 101

The nearly nine-foot-long, five-foot-wide sarcophagus is the largest ancient coffin yet discovered in the city, according to an official statement. This has prompted speculation that it may be the resting place of a powerful or wealthy person—perhaps even that of Alexander the Great, who founded his namesake city in 331 B.C.

While some historical accounts claim that the great Macedonian conqueror was ultimately buried in Alexandria following his death in 323 B.C., his tomb has never been found.

Two archaeologists who work in Alexandria and have knowledge of the discovery spoke independently to National Geographic. They both suspect that the sarcophagus itself may date to an earlier pharaonic dynasty in Egypt's long history, due in part to its unusually large proportions.

One of the two archaeologists believes that, since Alexandria wasn't even founded until the fourth century B.C., the massive sarcophagus may have been brought to the city empty, from an earlier, dynastic-period site down the Nile—such as Memphis—and then re-used to bury someone in later years.

The other archaeologist believes that the burial itself may also actually date to the Roman period, which follows the Ptolemaic period, based on its "high" elevation (the sarcophagus was uncovered just 15 feet below the modern street surface). This archaeologist also points out that the site of the burial is outside the boundaries of ancient Alexandria, making it highly unlikely that an ancient Egyptian royal would have been buried there.

What is known for sure is that if and when the sarcophagus is finally opened, it will be an engineering feat: The granite coffin is estimated to weigh some 30 tons.

In an interview with Egypt Today, Waad Abul-Ela, head of the projects sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, offered two potential methods to extract the find: One, to surround the sarcophagus with protective fill dirt and then lift the entire mass out of the pit via bulldozer; or two, to open the coffin in place and then remove the lid and base separately via a hoist.

No word yet on whether the spectacle will be livestreamed to the delight—and horror—of the Twitterverse. 

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