Opening ancient Egyptian sarcophagus an 'amazing opportunity' — despite rumours of a curse

Egyptian archeologists opened a 2,000-year-old granite sarcophagus discovered in Alexandria on Thursday despite rumours of mummies and curses.

Skeletal remains of 3 people believed to be warriors discovered in 2,000-year-old granite coffin

Only skeletal remains and sewage water were found in the sarcophagus, quashing speculation that it belonged to some ancient ruler. (Egypt Ministry of Antiquities/Facebook )

Despite rampant internet speculation about cursed mummies and Alexander the Great, an ancient sarcophagus unearthed in Egypt turned out to contain the grisly remains of three unknown people submerged in a bath of blood-red sewage water.

On Thursday, archaeologists opened the large, sealed, black granite sarcophagus dating to some 2,000 years ago in the coastal city of Alexandria.

The discovery, announced earlier this month, triggered speculation in local and international media about its contents.

'What they found is really amazing'

"We were all hoping they'd open the large black granite sarcophagus to find either a noble individual with rich regalia or another member of the elite," Carrie Arbuckle MacLeod, an archeologist specialising in ancient Egypt, told As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch.

Arbuckle MacLeod, a Vancouver native, was not directly involved in the excavation.

"It's somewhat disappointing to have all this speculation going on before they opened the sarcophagus, because what they found is really amazing," she said.

"The speculation around Alexander does take away from the excitement that could have surrounded the opening."

Archaeologists opened a large, sealed, black granite sarcophagus dating to some 2,000 years ago in the coastal city of Alexandria on Thursday. (Egypt Ministry of Antiquities/Facebook )

Egypt's Antiquities Ministry said in a statement that initial inspection suggests the skeletal remains likely belonged to three warriors, though further study is needed to confirm that.

Arbuckle MacLeod said the warrior theory makes sense. One of the skulls was fractured, as if struck by a sharp object.

What's more, she said ancient Egyptian soldiers were sometimes buried together on the battlefield soon after they died.

"I think it's too early to say that specifically about this," she said. "But that has been the case in the past."

Sickness and curses

As for rumours of a curse, MacLeod said with a chuckle: "We seem to have dodged that bullet."

Still, she doesn't fault people for joking and gossiping about the supernatural. 

"It's rather fascinating," she said. "I love that people get this excited every time something from ancient Egypt is found."

The skeletons were nestled in bath of blood-red sewage water. (Egypt Ministry of Antiquities/Facebook )

In fact, she said the notion of cursed tombs is not totally unfounded.

Some ancient Egyptian tombs have markings warning people that danger will befall anyone who disturbed its contents, and oftentimes people get sick after opening one. 

But that has more to do with fungi and animal faeces, she added.

"It tends to not so much be related to curses, unfortunately," she said.

Archeology to boost tourism 

Egypt has gone to great lengths to revive its vital tourism industry, still reeling from the political turmoil that followed a 2011 popular uprising.

In recent years, the Antiquities Ministry has touted discoveries in the hopes of bolstering tourism, a major pillar of foreign currency.

The discovery, announced earlier this month, triggered speculation in local and international media about its contents. (Egypt Ministry of Antiquities/Facebook )

Arbuckle MacLeod said today's discovery, despite the lack of name recognition, is really exciting.

"It adds to our knowledge about these people in an area that we really don't know that much about, quite frankly, to find a large sarcophagus like this, to build up our repertoire, to have these three individuals that now we get to discover their lives and find out more about their story," MacLeod said.

"I think it's just been an amazing opportunity." 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Produced by Ashley Mak.

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