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Wednesday, 8 March, 2000, 13:36 GMT
Runaway donkey stumbles into treasure
Hidden treasure: Mummies at the Bahariya site
Hidden treasure: Mummies at the Bahariya site
Near the small town of Bahariya in the heart of Egypt's Western Desert, Abdul Mojood patrols the grounds of the ancient temple of Alexander the Great . It was here three years ago that his donkey accidentally discovered a secret in the sands.

"I was working as usual when my donkey broke lose," he recalls . "I followed it until it stumbled. I went closer and saw it had fallen into the hole in the roof of the tomb."

What the donkey fell into turned out to be Egypt's biggest find from the Greco-Roman period 2,000 years ago.

I followed the donkey and saw it had fallen through the roof of the tomb

Abdul Mojood
No-one ever suspected that this piece of desert, 300km south-west of Cairo, was once the huge burial ground of a thriving town.

Dr Zahi Hawass, an archaeologist investigating the exciting discovery, was mesmerised by what they found.

"Most mummies of the Roman period are in a bad condition, completely ruined," he said. "We had never really seen mummiess like this, beautifully gold-gilded. And they were looking at me during the excavations as if they were alive".

Dr Zahi Hawass, chief archaeologist
Dr Zahi Hawass: It was as if they were looking at me
Archaeologists have just begun their excavations. They have opened up four tombs, and found more than 100 mummies. But the burial ground is spread over several square miles and they estimate it could contain 10,000 preserved corpses.

Well-kept secret

For three years the tombs were kept secret while the painstaking work of excavation began. Archaeologists uncovered whole families buried together, with the belongings their relatives thought they would need in the afterlife.

Miraculously the tombs had not been looted.

A few of the best preserved mummies are in a local museum.

Images of gods and goddesses adorn their waistcoats. The gold masks on their faces are all different, reflecting the character of the dead person. On one woman are scenes representing her soul being reborn after death.

Dr Hawass says the valuable artefacts will be removed from the tombs, but no more mummies will be put on display, in order to preserve them.
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