Despite – or perhaps in spite of – a wave of recent Twitter paranoia, archaeologists with Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities have opened that giant 2.65-meter (8.7-foot) black sarcophagus unearthed from a depth of 5 meters (16.4 feet) during a construction survey earlier this month.
The granite sarcophagus was the largest ever found in the Sidi Gaber district of Alexandria and had everyone scratching their heads and asking the same question: What could possibly be inside? Experts estimated it dated back to the Ptolemaic period (323-30 BCE), an era of Egyptian history that followed the death of Alexander the Great and ended after the Roman invasion and death of Cleopatra VII. A layer of mortar between the lid and sarcophagus body indicated the contents had never been opened. The bust of a man carved from alabaster was found nearby and is believed to be the owner of the tomb.
Because of its large and unconventional size, experts who spoke with National Geographic said they believe the sarcophagus could date to an earlier pharaonic dynasty and could have even been brought to the city from an earlier site down the Nile River and used to rebury someone later on.
Getting the sarcophagus out of its resting place will be an engineering feat of its own. Waad Abul-Ela, head of the Projects Sector at the Ministry, told Egypt Today that they plan to lift the 30-ton coffin in a two-part process. First, they will fill the area around the sarcophagus and then after they will lift it with a tow truck “in a scientific way that does not harm the antiquity.”
But because the world is holding its breath in anticipation of the imminent doom this coffin could release once opened, experts decided to check out what’s inside.
The good news? The stone coffin didn’t contain a sinister evil ready to unleash an apocalyptic curse upon the world. Phew. So what DID it contain?
Content warning: The next page includes images of human remains.
Here’s the bad news: The contents are found in an ooey-gooey, sludgy mess. Information posted by the Ministry says that the coffin was filled with sewage that appears to have leaked in via the road in the area. The stench was so bad the archaeological team reportedly had to leave the coffin for an hour after it was opened to let the tomb air out.
Resting in the sloppy red stew-age were three skeletons. Shaaban Abdel Moneim, a specialist in the study of mummies and skeletons, said a preliminary examination indicates they are all male and, because one suffered from what appears to be an arrow wound to the head, were most likely officials, possibly members of the military. Then again, Egypt Today reports the sarcophagus could belong to a priest, but certainly not a king or emperor as it does not have any inscriptions.
Officials took samples for analysis and say the skeletons will be transferred to the Alexandria National Museum for restoration and further study, including an investigation into their cause of death. Dating techniques will also be used to find where they fit in Alexandria’s rich and diverse history.