It’s 1851, and French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette strides up to an imposing tower of boulders, ready to blast them with explosives. When the dust clears from the detonation, though, an extraordinary subterranean labyrinth from more than 3,000 years ago finally reveals itself. And the mysterious stone boxes that Mariette finds within the structure are astonishing – even if they present a seemingly unsolvable puzzle.
Specifically, Mariette had unearthed an ancient burial ground known as the Serapeum of Saqqara. This landmark lies about 15 miles south of Giza, which plays host to Egypt’s best-known pyramid site. And the structure of the underground burial chamber is basically that of a tunnel bored into the rock of a mountain. Positioned off that passageway, meanwhile, are a series of chambers or alcoves.
Then, within those chambers, there are the huge stone boxes that make the Serapeum truly special. The receptacles are hewn from granite and are truly massive, with the largest among them weighing in at nearly 90 tons. What’s more, they boast yet another extraordinary feature: an almost faultless symmetry. All the edges and surfaces of the boxes have been carved in painstaking straight lines, in fact.
When Mariette discovered these enigmatic containers, though, sadly all but one of the 25 had been previously looted by graverobbers. And owing to this state of affairs, one question still remained: what had these monumental boxes been used for? It would have taken a great deal of effort to make them, after all, and the Egyptians would hardly have gone to all that trouble without a specific purpose in mind. But what was it?
We’ll get back to the perplexing items shortly, but first let’s find out a little more about Mariette himself. The Egyptologist came into the world in 1821, and he was born in Boulogne-sur-Mer – a French seaside town in the north of the country that overlooks the English Channel.
In 1850, however, the French government commissioned Mariette to travel to Egypt in search of the best examples of historic manuscripts from the Arabic, Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopic traditions. Then, once he had found the texts, he needed to purchase them. You see, the French wanted these artifacts for their museum collections, which were already recognized as among the best in the world.
Yet while Mariette set out on his first journey to Egypt in 1850, his mission did not meet with success. For one, he simply could not track down the sort of manuscripts that he’d been told to collect. And, in essence, his lack of experience at performing such a task was at the root of his failure. Still, Mariette could not contemplate the shame of returning to France empty-handed.
So, the Frenchman now looked around for an alternative prize – some find that could earn him similar respect in his homeland. Ultimately, then, he became friendly with people from some local Bedouin tribes. And as it turns out, those desert Arabs led Mariette to a fantastic discovery that would ensure his name endured throughout the ages.
In particular, the Bedouin directed Mariette to a place called Saqqara, which lies to the south of Cairo. This massive site was once the necropolis, or burial ground, for the city and for Memphis – the one-time capital of ancient Egypt. And Saqqara is where many of Egypt’s best-known buildings from antiquity stand, with the famous Pyramid of Djoser and its distinctive stepped structure among them.
But when Mariette was guided to the site by the friendly Bedouins, he was less than impressed. All he saw at first was a bleak desert landscape punctuated only by sand dunes. In time, though, he did spot the head of one sphinx peeking out above ground. And according to legend, this statue had previously been one of a magnificent array of 600 such sculptures.
This spectacular row of sphinxes had then led, it’s been said, to the Serapeum of Saqqara. Understandably, Mariette therefore believed that it was worth looking for this ancient structure. And he began his search not far from the Pyramid of Djoser, tracing an envisioned line of statues to what could be the entrance to the Serapeum.
It seems, in fact, that Mariette had a fairly clear idea of what he was looking for – and that may all be down to a Greek historian called Strabo. In his 1882 book Le Sérapéum de Memphis, you see, the French adventurer quoted Strabo’s description of the Serapeum of Saqqara and its surroundings.
Strabo wrote, “One finds a temple to Serapis in such a sandy place that the wind heaps up the sand dunes. Beneath [these], we saw sphinxes – some half-buried, some buried up to the head – from which one can suppose that the way to this temple could not be without danger if one were caught in a sudden wind storm.”
Then, commenting on Strabo’s text, Mariette opined, “Did it not seem that Strabo had written this sentence to help us rediscover, after over 18 centuries, the famous temple dedicated to Serapis? It was impossible to doubt it. This buried Sphinx – the companion of 15 others I had encountered in Alexandria and Cairo – formed with them, according to the evidence, part of the avenue that led to the Memphis Serapeum.”
Mariette continued, “It did not seem to me possible to leave to others the credit and profit of exploring this temple whose remains a fortunate chance had allowed me to discover and whose location henceforth would be known. Undoubtedly many precious fragments, many statues [and] many unknown texts were hidden beneath the sand upon which I stood.”
But to complete his excavations at the location, Mariette needed a team of workers. Even once he had recruited 30 local men for the task at hand, though, he decided that more than just human labor was needed. You see, after Mariette had identified what he believed was the entrance to the Serapeum, he was met by an impenetrable wall of rock. And, unfortunately, this obstacle could not be removed by hand.
Eventually, then, the ingenious Frenchman decided that a good-sized explosion was the answer. That may seem dangerous, and blasting your way into a rare and ancient site would hardly meet the exacting standards of modern archeology, either. But this was the mid-19th century, and archeology in Egypt at the time was fraught with competition.
So, in 1851, Mariette finally stood at the entrance of the Serapeum of Saqqara. Then, on November 12, he entered the tunnel that had been bored into the mountain, where he came across an incredible treasure trove of ancient bronze tablets, statues and tombs. Frustratingly for Mariette, though, graverobbers had beaten him to these finds, and only one sarcophagus had been left undamaged.
Yet there was also an almost intact tomb – one that belonged to Prince Khaemweset. Born in about 1303 B.C., Khaemweset had reigned as pharaoh from 1279 B.C. until his death at the age of about 90 in 1213 B.C. And his sarcophagus had actually been found under the pile of rock that the blast had created; thankfully for Mariette, though, the item had emerged practically unscathed.
Inside the coffin, meanwhile, were the mummified remains of Khaemweset, who had been adorned in a spectacular manner. The face of the pharoah had been covered in a gold mask, for instance, while his body sported opulent jewelry. The tomb contained many lavish grave goods, too. But what of those strange stone boxes?
Well, those mysterious objects were of course discovered within the Serapeum of Saqqara, which is separated into two distinct parts. The principal corridor and chambers of the Serapeum are the Greater Vaults, while a second passage complete with alcoves is known as the Lesser Vaults; both areas are hewn from the solid sandstone bedrock. The Greater Vaults hallway, which runs for well over 1,100 feet, also has an adjoining series of chambers, and it’s there that the boxes were found.
What’s more, it was Khaemweset himself who ordered the building of the Lesser Vaults. At that time, the pharoah was just a prince, as his father, Ramesses II, was ruling over ancient Egypt. Then, some 600 years later, Pharaoh Psamtik I ordered the construction of the Greater Vaults.
And the boxes – complete with removable lids – typically weighed from 60 to 80 tons or more, with each having been hewn from a single slab of granite. The carving is incredibly precise, too, with the lids – which each weigh 30 tons – all fitting virtually perfectly onto the stone below.
Since the large sarcophagi that Mariette found were empty, however, it wasn’t immediately apparent what they could once have contained. Ultimately, though, a study of Egyptian religious beliefs and practices at the time when the vaults were built has revealed the true purpose of those huge boxes. In particular, it seems that they served as coffins for the ritual interment of deceased bulls.
These were not just any old cattle, though; they were Apis bulls, making them sacred. You see, people at the time believed that bulls were reincarnations of the god Ptah. In death, then, the animals took on the identity of a synthesis of the gods Osiris and Apis and became immortal. This combination of Osiris and Apis was known as Serapis, from which the word “Serapeum” is derived.
So, the Serapeum at Saqqara could be a place where not only humans but also animals were buried. And, interestingly, the cult of Serapis was carried over from the ancient Egyptian dynasties into the Hellenic era when the Greeks took control of Egypt. This period is known as the Ptolemaic Kingdom.
Indeed, Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter ordered that both the Egyptians and their Greek conquerors should worship Serapis. This command came in the third century B.C., at a time when the ruler was keen to unite the different peoples. And insisting that the two factions both bow to the same god was one way of doing this. Another serapeum was even built in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria to reinforce the power of this cult.
But these bulls that were buried had to have very particular characteristics. To be worshipped as part of the Serapis cult, the animals needed to both be black and white and to have a particular pattern on their hides. And writing on her website Gigal Research, French explorer Antoine Gigal gives a detailed account of what exactly made an Apis bull.
Gigal explains, “The bull had to be black and white with a white belly. It [also] had to have a white triangular mark on its forehead, an eagle with spread wings on its back, a crescent moon on its side, a scarab-shaped mark under its tongue and a tail with long hairs parted in two. So, it was a bull that was predestined for the role.”
Only a single sacred bull was worshipped at any one time, though. During that period, priests would also study the animal’s behavior in a bid to determine the will of the gods. Then, after an Apis bull died, it would be ceremonially mummified and taken from its home in the city of Memphis to Saqqara to be entombed.
And we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of these sacred bulls to the Egyptians. When one of them died, you see, there was an obligatory country-wide day of mourning. After that, the hunt for a replacement bull with just the right physical attributes would begin. Priests would be dispatched around the entire country, in fact, in the search for a bull with the correct markings.
The ancient Egyptians believed, moreover, that a true Apis bull had to be born from a cow that would be unable to produce any more calves. In time, though, a bolt of lightning would strike the mother to produce a sacred child. And after this revered animal was discovered, it would be carried along the Nile to Memphis resplendent in a golden shelter.
But what happened to Mariette after his discovery of the Serapeum of Saqqara? Well, that monumental find marked a decisive turn in his fortunes. The Egyptians created a job especially for him, in fact, making the Frenchman the official conservator of Egyptian monuments. And from then on, Mariette enjoyed a highly successful career as a leading Egyptologist until his death in 1881. He also managed to unearth many more buildings and artifacts from the ancient era of the Pharaohs.
But not everyone believes that those giant granite boxes were once sarcophagi for the sacred Apis bulls. And one of those who has doubts is Gigal herself. She has visited the tombs, you see, and there are aspects of both these and the stone boxes that she finds puzzling. For one thing, Gigal thought that the size of the boxes was strange, as they were all much larger than needed to house mummified bulls.
Gigal has also pointed out that Mariette only found empty boxes, and she has verified their lack of contents in person. Ultimately, then, this means that no one has actually seen the mummified remains of a bull inside one of those supposed sarcophagi. Gigal therefore contends that there is no conclusive evidence the boxes ever contained any sacred animals.
And while Mariette did actually discover mummified bulls at the Saqqara site, they were not in those stone containers. Instead, the 28 cattle that he found were contained in much smaller wooden coffins. It’s interesting to note, too, that as of yet, no written Egyptian records about the boxes have been discovered.
Gigal has also pondered how the massive granite receptacles even made it into the Serapeum of Saqqara. She points out on her website, “We know also that these sarcophagi are proof of an incredible technology, and one wonders how they could have been brought here in these narrow underground passageways where cranes cannot go.”
But while Gigal doesn’t venture to offer an opinion about an alternative purpose for the granite boxes, others have been happy to do just that. And in January 2018 the British newspaper the Daily Express reported one particularly bizarre theory. It’s said, you see, that as the coffins are so precisely made, they could not have been fashioned by human hand. Instead, it’s claimed, beings from another planet must have left the boxes on Earth for reasons unknown.
Yet another off-the-wall explanation has come by way of the website Ancient Origins. In his 2018 article for the site, Konstantin Borisov not only states that the boxes were much bigger than necessary for bulls, but he also asks why no mummified animals had actually been discovered inside. Both of these points are ones that Gigal has also made, of course. But Borisov has gone even further, speculating that the boxes may actually have been giant electrical batteries.
So, were these huge stone boxes deposited on Earth by aliens? Were they actually ancient prototypical batteries? Or were they indeed sarcophagi used by the ancient Egyptians to entomb their sacred bulls? It seems most likely that the taurine explanation is the correct one. But it’s undeniable that an air of mystery still surrounds these monumental granite artifacts.