Authorities Unearth Three Mummies From Ancient Sarcophagus in Egypt

Three skeletons float in a 2,000-year-old sarcophagus filled with sewage water in Alexandria, Egypt, on July 19. The archaeologists were forced to pause the excavation for an hour because of the tomb's foul, centuries-old smell. (Photo by Egyptian Antiquities Ministry/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly three weeks after it was found, Egyptian archaeologists opened a 2,000-year-old sarcophagus that delighted internet doomsday theorists but revealed the stench of three decomposing bodies instead of an ancient curse.

The sarcophagus, initially discovered earlier in July in Alexandria, Egypt, contained the centuries-old skeletons of three men, presumed to be military officers, floating in murky, red-tinged sewage that seeped into the underground tomb, Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities said Thursday. Archaeologists couldn't immediately remove the sealed stone sarcophagus, the largest discovered in the city, from the earth due to its immense weight—more than 30 tons.

"The sarcophagus has been opened, but we have not been hit by a curse," said Mostafa Waziri, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, in an interview with Egypt Today.

The tomb, itself 6 feet tall and buried more than 16 feet below the surface, was found near the alabaster carved head of a man, likely the tomb's owner. Once the team unsealed it, they paused the excavation for an hour to air out the open tomb with its putrid smell. The men were originally mummified to preserve their bodies but were likely decomposed by the leaking sewage, Waziri said.

The Ministry of Antiquities said one of the skeletons bore an arrow wound, evidence the men were soldiers. Their remains will be transferred to the Alexandria National Museum to date the bones and learn the men's cause of death. The coffin, once restored, will be sent to the Egyptian National Military Museum in Cairo, the ministry said.

The bodies were initially thought to have belonged to a royal family from the Ptolemaic Kingdom, but Waziri said the archaeologists couldn't find any inscriptions on the tomb indicating royal heritage. Nor were there any gold masks or amulets, which typically accompany mummified significant figures.

The ministry previously claimed the tomb dated back to the Ptolemaic period between 300 B.C. and 30 B.C. According to a 2008 study of a mummified teenage girl from the same period, the Ptolemaic Kingdom's lower-status dead were not embalmed as carefully as deceased "well-to-do" citizens, leaving their bodies more susceptible to decomposition by natural elements. Also, they were buried in coffins without hieroglyphics.

Mummies have made news centuries after their burials. In April, researchers unearthed what they believe to be the mummified body of one of Iran's last shahs, Reza Shah Pahlavi, near Tehran. In July, scientists tested the remains of Europe's oldest naturally preserved mummy, called Ötzi the Iceman, decades after his discovery in a European glacier. They found he consumed a high-fat diet to fuel himself during harsh winters.