Egyptian archaeologists on Sunday unveiled mummies, brightly painted sarcophagi and dozens of ancient tombs carved into a rocky hill in a desert oasis south of Cairo.
The 53 tombs — some as old as 4,000 years — were discovered recently on a sandy plateau overlooking farming fields in the village Illahun, located in the Fayoum oasis about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of the Egyptian capital.
Archaeologists gave journalists a rare tour of the ancient burial site Sunday, which is next to the nearly four millennia old pyramid of Pharaoh Sesostris II.
"At the beginning of the excavation I said that we may rewrite the history of the site, and I was right," said Abdel-Rahman el-Ayedi, the deputy secretary of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities who oversaw the dig.
Three slim wooden sarcophagi believed to be holding female mummies were laid out in one of the tombs. The innermost coffins were painted to resemble the deceased using blue, yellow, rust and black dyes.
In another tomb, workers slowly removed the lid of one inscribed with hieroglyphic prayers to reveal a colorful mummy case that el-Ayedi said belonged to a woman named Isis Her Ib, the daughter of one of Illahun's mayors nearly 4,000 years ago.
Not much was known about who used the ancient necropolis. El-Ayedi said some of the tombs were just 2,800 years old, while others were from the Middle Kingdom, which dates back 2061-1786 B.C.
Some had a single burial shaft, while others had upper and lower chambers. A funerary chapel with an offering table, painted masks, pottery, statues and protection charms known as amulets were also found at the site, el-Ayedi said.
Archaeologists hope to study the mummies' bones to learn more about the nutrition, health and customs of the people who used to live in the area, el-Ayedi said.
"It will help us to follow the development of funeral architecture, beliefs and customs of ancient Egyptians," he said. "Not only through artistic motifs and text, but many tests are being done in the lab."