Out of Egypt

From a long-buried pyramid to the Saint Louis Art Museum: The mysterious voyage of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask.

It was near the end of September 1951 when a young archaeologist named Mohammed Zakaria Goneim noticed a small outcropping of masonry along a terrace at Saqqara, the sprawling necropolis twenty miles south of Cairo, Egypt.

Goneim had arrived six months earlier to assume his duties as Saqqara's chief inspector of antiquities, a government post. Dark-skinned and dapper, the bespectacled antiquarian wore his black hair cut short. His high forehead was often crowned by a wide-brimmed pith helmet, and he was rarely without a pair of round sunglasses to protect his eyes from the harsh desert sun.

Trained at the University of Cairo, the 39-year-old Goneim (pronounced goo-neem) was part of Egypt's new breed of native-born archaeologists. He'd held similar positions in Upper Egypt and at the Theban Necropolis on the west bank of the Nile, but it was in Saqqara that the young Egyptologist resolved to make a name for himself, joining the likes of Howard Carter and William Petrie in the pantheon of modern archaeology.

When M. Zakaria Goneim discovered the 19th Dynasty mask atop a buried Egyptian pyramid, he dubbed her Ka-Nefer-Nefer: the Twice-Beautiful Ka.
When M. Zakaria Goneim discovered the 19th Dynasty mask atop a buried Egyptian pyramid, he dubbed her Ka-Nefer-Nefer: the Twice-Beautiful Ka.

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"It was true that Saqqara had been dug many many times," Goneim would write in The Buried Pyramid, his 1956 account of the excavation. "I was the latest in a long line of archaeologists who worked at Saqqara, and I would not have been human if I had not hoped that to me would be granted the opportunity of making further discoveries."

The pockmarked swath of land bounded by the Western Desert to the west and the ancient capital of Memphis to the east had served for millennia as the graveyard to the Egyptian pharaohs. Topping the region's list of archaeological jewels is the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which dates to the Third Dynasty (2686-2613 B.C.) and is widely regarded as Egypt's oldest pyramid.

"I had been puzzled by the fact that although the Third Dynasty was one of the most important in Egyptian history — the time when Egypt had become a unified kingdom ruled from Memphis — little was known of any of the [other] Third Dynasty kings," Goneim writes. "Could it be, I wondered, that the memory of this great monarch had eclipsed that of his successors in the same way as his pyramid overshadowed the other, lesser monuments in the area?"

With these thoughts in mind, Goneim assembled a crew "from the peasant class" and began to excavate just east of the Djoser pyramid. It was a dig that would come to define his life.

"To our delight, on the first day a massive wall of rubble-coursed masonry appeared," Goneim would write. The excavation crew quickly assembled a narrow-gauge railway, or decauville, to cart away sand and rock. Unearthed, the wall proved to be a buttressing device for a structure that had been built on a depression in the desert floor. Goneim soon concluded he was excavating a site "several times the size of Trafalgar Square in London."

Unlike the smooth-sided pyramids of later dynasties, Djoser's is built of smaller stone blocks that incline toward a central core of rubble. As Goneim's excavation progressed, the new site's structural similarity to Djoser led the archaeologist to believe he might have uncovered the "buried" pyramid of a hitherto-unknown pharaoh of the Third Dynasty.

His conviction was confirmed on New Year's Day 1952. "We suddenly found a flight of steps leading to an enormous cross-wall," Goneim recounts in The Buried Pyramid. "As it gradually revealed itself in all its beauty, exactly as the workmen had left it nearly five thousand years ago, I realized that here was a find of major importance."

Fueling his excitement were the scores of more recent burials his crew had encountered atop the pyramid's core, the earliest of which dated from the Nineteenth Dynasty (1293-1185 B.C.).

"I was able to satisfy myself that the monument had been undisturbed for at least 3,000 years," Goneim writes. "Proof of this lay in the large number of later burials which my workmen found...lying undisturbed above the pyramid itself[;] it is obvious that the wall we had uncovered had not been seen by human eyes since that remote epoch."

Armed with this information, Goneim announced to the world that he might have uncovered the untouched tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh named Sekhemkhet — potentially the most significant find since Howard Carter unearthed the virgin tomb of Tutankhamen 30 years before.

Among the many burials Goneim discovered atop the pyramid, one in particular caught his eye: the unmummified body of a woman, wrapped in a simple reed mat. Her remains, which dated to the Nineteenth Dynasty, were badly decomposed, but she wore an elaborate mask over her head and shoulders. Her face, covered by a thin sheet of blended copper and gold, peeked from beneath an intricate resin wig molded into plaits. The diadem that crowned her head was made of glass, as were her eyes and nipples. In each hand she held an amulet symbolizing strength and welfare; etched across her folded arms was a scene depicting the encounter between Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, and the woman's spiritual double in the afterlife, known as her ka.

Goneim dubbed the woman Ka-Nefer-Nefer: the Twice-Beautiful Ka.

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