An Egyptian statue "grave" filled with figurines of deities and mythical creatures ranging from sphinxes to monkeys is providing archaeologists with new insights into ancient religious practices, according to the International Business Times. These findings were recently published online in the journal Antiquity.
Archaeologists in Luxor discovered the cache in 2014, while excavating a temple dedicated to Egyptian creator god Ptah. Ptah's temple is situated in the precinct of Amun-Re, a central section of the massive religious complex of Karnak that was devoted to the male god, who was associated with the ancient city of Thebes, as Luxor was known in antiquity. Other sections of the sprawling site celebrate Amun-Re's wife, the Egyptian mother goddess Mut, and the war-god Montu.
Behind an edifice of Thutmosis III—the 18th-dynasty pharaoh who's remembered for conquering all of Syria, giving ancient Egypt unprecedented global power—archaeologists discovered an oval pit about three feet deep and wide.
A total of 38 objects—statuettes, figurines, statue fragments—were found inside the pit, which researchers refer to as a favissa, defined by Antiquity as "an intentionally hoarded assemblage of religious objects in a pit." Most were broken, but some had well-preserved details. The sacred objects were crafted at different times, but were all buried during the second half of the Ptolemaic period, which spanned between the 2nd century BCE and the middle of the 1st century BCE.
Along with a large lower piece taken from a seated statue of Ptah—an artwork that had likely sat in the god's Karnak temple for years—the trove included one sphinx; two statuettes of Mut (one complete with hieroglyphic inscriptions); a head and a partial statuette featuring the cat goddess Bastet; 14 statues and figurines of Osiris, the god of rebirth; and three baboon statuettes, which represent Thoth, a deity of the Moon, learning, and writing. (Thoth's sacred animals were the ibis and the baboon.)
Statue bases, slabs, and inlay fragments were also found, the last of which included body parts like an iris, a cornea, and a false beard.
Egyptian religious statues were considered to be alive, and were regularly washed, clothed, and fed by priests. The artifacts discovered in the pit may have had a shelf life as ritual objects, and were ceremonially buried after they were no longer useful, researchers say.
"We can consider that when a new statue was erected in the temple, this one [of Ptah] was set aside in a pit," said Christophe Thiers, the study's co-author and director of the French-Egyptian Centre for the Study of the Temples of Karnak, according to Live Science. "The other artifacts were also previously damaged during their 'lifetime' in the temple, and then they were buried with the Ptah statue" to symbolically protect it.
The priests likely lowered the fragment of Ptah statue's down into the pit first, before placing down a wooden effigy of Osiris and surrounding it with other objects. The pit was covered with a layer of backfill, and topped with a small limestone sphinx. It then received a second layer of earth, and was topped with a gilded protective statue of a male head—only for researchers to dig up the elaborate arrangement more than 2000 years later.