Secrets in the sand: the thrill of uncovering Egyptian artifacts

by | 5 Apr 2023

With new breathtaking discoveries being made monthly, Egypt’s wealth of ancient riches is seemingly limitless. But what is it like living and working at the coal face of an archaeological Aladdin’s cave?

We spoke with Assem, Egyptologist, Travel Director and this week’s Insightful destination expert. From gold-leaf covered mummies dating back thousands of years, to an avenue of over 1000 sphinxes, he tells us about the major discoveries of recent times, and offers his insights into how they’re increasing our understanding of this ancient civilization.


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“My mother was a history teacher and a great storyteller,” Assem tells us. “When I was young, whenever we went out, she would hold my hands so tight. In the streets, in gardens, even when going to the supermarket. The only place she allowed me to run freely around was among the museums and temples. She knew how much I love those places and she knew how safe they are.

“That’s how I built my love for the monuments. Imagine wondering among those great temples, seeing all those Egyptian artefacts. With inscriptions, art and beautiful colors covering every inch of the paintings and the intricate hieroglyphics and carvings. I fell in love with the Ancient civilization. It’s exciting, especially when your mother tells you about the story behind what you’re looking at, in a very exciting way. It brings everything to life.

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“So that’s what I do as a Travel Director and Egyptologist. I’m acting like my mother with my groups. I always bring the site alive and tell guests the story behind it. Why would they build such a forest of columns in the Karnak Temple. When you go to the Valley of the Kings, and you see those vivid colors – why are those there? With the stories of the afterlife – what makes Egyptians think there’ll be an afterlife? There is a great history to be learned and amazing stories to be told.

For travel inspiration: Egypt destination guide


“At any given time of the year there are no less than 45 missions, working on excavations all over Egypt, from north to south,” Assem explains. “The number swells in winter when the weather is cooler, but even after years of search, new surprises regularly come from ancient Egyptian sites on monthly basis. Some of them you don’t read about as they are minor discoveries, but every now and then something big comes out and it hits the news.

“Archaeological finds of Egyptian artifacts are immediately sent to the laboratories in the museums, either the old Egyptian museum or sent to the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is due to open to the public later this year. They have an amazing preservation laboratory. The elements are controlled, and preserved in a glass container, with controlled temperature and humidity.”

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“Saqqara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 90 miles south of the Egyptian capital, Cairo. It is part of the necropolis of the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, the first capital of Egypt. And is the site of two recent major discoveries of Egyptian artifacts,” says Assem.

“In October 2020, archaeologists discovered 59 coffins. Each covered with intricate designs in vibrant colors. The sarcophagi had not been opened for more than 2500 years. They were extremely well preserved, just like the mummies they contained. This discovery was great news.

“Then just last January, two new tombs were discovered. One of them, the most important discovery on the site, is a 15-meter shaft with a large rectangular limestone sarcophagus at the bottom. The inscription on the top of the sarcophagus revealed the identity of the owner, Hekashepes.

“The sarcophagus was completely sealed with mortar, just as the ancient Egyptians left it 4300 years ago. When the lid was raised, the mummy of a man was found covered with gold leaf. That indicates his important status. And what is so important is that the mummy may be the oldest and the most complete mummy found in Egypt to date. So that was really important discovery of ancient Egyptian artifacts. Very impressive.”

Discover Egypt for yourself on: Wonders of Egypt, Splendours of Egypt and Land of the Prophets


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“With every discovery something new is learned. That’s the great thing about it and that’s why we get so excited about every discovery,” says Assem. “There are lots of uncertainties about ancient times – we’re talking about ancient history of more than 4500 years old.

“There’s lots of missing information, lots of unknown reasons, and so on. So, every discovery we make is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, that sheds light on some information about the lives of ancient people. About their expectations, their habits and their traditions. So, with every discovery, the picture is getting more complete.”


“For example, for years we thought that we knew everything about the great pyramids,” Assem continues, speaking of the the Giza Necropolis, home to the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramids. “In Egypt there are more than 120 pyramids, the most famous being the three pyramids of Giza. The biggest one of them is Khufu, named after the Pharoah who oversaw its construction. This is the oldest pyramid in Egypt built roughly 4500 years ago. It was believed to have been explored from top to bottom.

“And then recently in 2017 a high energy particle radiation scan revealed a hidden cavity 30 meters long. Imagine 30 meters cavity with no path or tunnels leading into that secret chamber not previously known about at all. In fact, its purpose is still unclear.

“Then more recently, earlier this year, another team of international archeologists using high tech instruments found a sealed off chamber above the main entrance of the great Pyramid. The corridor is not accessible from outside and is around 9 meters long and two meters wide. It is suggested the corridor may have been designed to redistribute the weight above the main entrance. At the end of this passage there are two big blocks of limestone, and we don’t know what behind what’s behind that Maybe there is something behind, but that yet to be discovered. So, it opens new chapter of research and thought every time.”


“In the Valley of the Kings itself, in the 1990s, there was a great discovery of the largest tombs in Egypt,” Assem says. “What was discovered was just a small hole with some pillars, full of debris and trash. In 1994, Professor Kent Weeks, was assigned to clear up the debris. As they removed the debris, they found a gateway that led to the rest of the tomb.

“It turned out to be the largest tomb in Egypt, with more than 54 chambers and more than 300 passages. But imagine, in the Valley of the Kings, the most obvious site with lots of excavations, we were still making such big discoveries of Egyptian artifacts in 1994.

You may also like: Six Spectacular Egyptian Temples

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“Then more recently there was a find at the Luxor Temple complex, where you can find the remains of the ancient city of Thebes. Here there was old house built at the entrance that has been demolished and they found the ruins of a Roman city, right next to the Luxor Temple.

“The famous Avenue of the Sphinxes is also a recent find. This 2.7-kilometer ‘Path of the Gods’ was buried under numerous houses, school, mosque and churches. And for centuries, nobody knew about it. And then in the 1940s, as some of the old houses were demolished, we learned there was an avenue there, but nobody took the bold political decision to remove all the houses that were built above it.

“Our current president took the brave decision to relocate people with compensation, and the whole avenue was revealed. 1050 Sphinxes have been discovered up to now, and the whole avenue was reopened with a big celebration last summer.”

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“In a funny story, we even made finds in the basement of our own Egyptian Museum of Cairo, which houses many famous Egyptian artifacts,” Assem tells us. “For the last 120 years, whenever a discovery was made, they would send all moveable articles right away to the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. It became more of a warehouse rather than a museum. In the basement that are well over 80,000 ancient Egyptian artifacts and not even properly catalogued.

“Back in the year 1916 a mummy had been discovered, south of Luxor city, completely wrapped. It was sent to the museum and left in that basement. The mummy was stored unexamined for over a century.
“Recently, just a few weeks ago, a CT scan has revealed that it is actually a golden mummy, which is very special. These studies revealed that the mummy belongs to a 15-year-old boy, mummified at a very high level. The body was extensively decorated with 49 different shaped amulets, in three columns between the folds of the wrappings and inside the body cavity.

“30 of those amulets were made of gold, others from semi-precious stones. One of the gold amulets in the shape of a tongue was placed inside the mummy’s mouth so the young boy in the afterlife would speak golden words. And a gold amulet the shape of a heart was placed right in the chest, to have a golden heart in the afterlife. Studies like this shed light on social life in ancient Egypt 1000s of years ago.”


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“The level of the rich history in Egypt is just unheard of in most civilizations,” says Assem. “Its elegance is an art form. A mummy is more than just remains, it’s the most beautifully tended to and loved remains. I think there’s a beautiful elegance to all Egyptian artifacts.

“We have great weather also. It’s warm and sunny all year round, and perfect weather in winter. The diversity is amazing in Egypt, you can enjoy sitting on a cruise ship, enjoying a sip of a cold drink, while the sun sets in a forest of palm trees. Enjoying the scenery of the River Nile, the longest river in the world, seeing all these kids running around and cows passing by. What could be more beautiful than that. Of course, the Giza Plateau and the pyramids are the most powerful tourist magnets.

Read about one of our trips: The Wonders of Egypt, Christmas and a Birthday all rolled into one for the tour of a lifetime

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“But beyond popular sites, Egyptian people are fascinating. We’re diverse with different accents, unique traditions and even different fashions, depending on which city you are from. With Insight Vacations, we Visit a countryside house and meet a local family. It’s fun to know their life story, their aspirations and the how they celebrate their weddings for example. It’s a wonderful experience.

“And the Egyptian cuisine is delicious and distinctive, influenced by neighboring countries in the Middle East, resulting in dishes full of flavor. Not only tasty, the food in Egypt shapes the national culture. We turn to food in times of happiness, struggle and sadness. Dining is the highlight of any event, so we have a dish for every occasion.”

To experience the best of Egypt for yourself, along with magnificent hotels and delicious dining, take a look at our collection of premium guided tours.

I'm a writer, editor and interview specialist with a lifetime's love of travel. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than meeting, and writing about, the world's leading destination experts and travel industry insiders. The thing I love most about writing for Insightful is that I'm always learning something new.