IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Mystery pharaoh and his tomb identified in Egypt

Image: Senebkay text
Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities
Image: Senebkay text
A painted hieroglyphic text found on the eastern wall of an Egyptian tomb's burial chamber refers toEgyptian Ministry of Antiquities

CAIRO — A previously unknown pharaoh and his burial place have been unearthed amid the tombs of other Egyptian kings, and archaeologists say the find could lead to still more royal discoveries.

The pharaoh's name, Senebkay, was found inscribed on the wall of a burial chamber that's part of the Abydos archaeological site, near the southern city of Sohag. Fragments of the name appeared on one list of Egyptian kings and queens, but no other trace of Senebkay had been found until now, said Ali Asfar, head of antiquities for the Egyptian government.

"This was the first time in history to discover the king," Asfar told NBC News on Wednesday.

He and other archaeologists say Senebkay lived roughly 3,650 years ago, during the second intermediate period of ancient Egyptian history. That was an era when several rulers vied for power — setting the stage for the rise of Egypt's New Kingdom around 1550 B.C.

'Lost dynasty'
Senebkay's tomb was found earlier this month by a team of archaeologists led by the University of Pennsylvania's Josef Wegner. They came upon the structure while excavating the adjacent tomb of an earlier pharaoh, King Sobekhotep I.

The newfound tomb contains what appear to be the plundered remains of a royal burial, including the pharaoh's pulled-apart skeleton. Senebkay was apparently 5-foot-10 and died in his mid- to late 40s, archaeologists said.

Wegner told NBC News that the find could point the way to a previously unknown pharaonic dynasty.

"We discovered an unknown king plus a lost dynasty," he said. "It looks likely that all of the 16 kings are all buried there. ... We now have the tomb for first or second king of this dynasty. There should be a whole series of the others.”

Image: Decoration and skeleton
The photo at left shows decoration in the burial chamber of Senebkay. At right, archaeologists examine Senebkay's skeleton. He was originally mummified, but his body was pulled apart by ancient tomb robbers.Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

Shades of King Tut
He described his team's entry into the tomb's decorated burial chamber as an experience similar to what archaeologist Howard Carter might have felt when he found Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922.

“It unfolded over a couple of days," Wegner said. "It was a little bit like King Tut, in that we found the entrance first and it led us down to a burial chamber. We reached a painted limestone chamber with cartouches and the titular of a pharaoh. ... In Abydos there is lots of sand, and everything is deeply buried. You can dig day after day, and then this….We were standing there looking dumbfounded at the colorful wall decoration.”

The discovery of a reused burial chest helped him date the discovery.

“Tomb robbers had stripped it, but it still had the prescription of Sobekhotep on the wood," Wegner said. "The fact that they were reusing wood would suggest that it was relatively soon after the earlier tomb of Sobekhotep.”

Image: Senebkay's tomb
Archaeologists surve the tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh, Senebkay, and its surroundings at the Abydos site.Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

The reuse of materials from previous reigns and the relatively rustic artistry suggest a lack of stability and wealth, Wegner said. “It suggests that the king had economic challenges, which has to do with the period of struggle and fragmentation of kingdom.”

Wegner believes he will find much more when he returns to excavate in the spring.

"Where there are king’s tombs, there are also queen's tombs, and tombs of high officials of the royal court,” he told NBC News. “The discovery has given an interesting look at a period of fragmentation and political conflict, struggling with rival kingdoms of the north and south.” 

Charlene Gubash is an NBC News producer in Cairo.