The Scots and the lost city of Egypt

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A SCOTTISH archaeological expedition, operating on a shoestring budget, has uncovered an ancient Egyptian city, buried by the sands of time.

The expedition, which scrapes together 10,000 a year to maintain its dig near Memphis, the ancient Pharaonic capital, has written a new page of Egypt’s history.

For the newly-discovered town, situated near the necropolis of Saqqara, 15 miles from Cairo, is almost certainly where the workmen who built the pyramids lived with their families.

The presence of large temples, some nearly 200ft square, a number of tombs and the mix of large and small dwellings indicate a place where the wealthy lived alongside the artisan, a "real" town that will offer a unique insight into Egyptian life unaffected by the glamour of the royal and aristocratic classes.

The discovery is a remarkable achievement for the academics and experts who go on busmen’s holidays to work at the site near the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the oldest such structure, built 1,000 years before the Valley of the Kings.

Ian Mathieson, a scientific archaeologist from Edinburgh and the director of the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project, said: "I do not believe we will recover any chariots of gold or fabulous pharaoh masks, but in archaeological terms it is stunning; a hitherto undiscovered town, complete, buried beneath the sand."

Such is the importance of the discovery that the Supreme Council for Antiquities in Egypt allowed the archaeologists to publish their findings, an honour reserved for discoveries of particular significance.

Mr Mathieson added: "What we’ve found indicates the town evolved from the Old Kingdom - around 2,500BC - through the reign of Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies, and beyond the birth of Christ to about 54AD.

"In terms of resources, it is miraculous that we continue to discover bigger and better things than teams from France and Germany which spend 1 million a year each, compared to our 10,000 to 15,000.

"In cash terms, we lag behind countries like Poland and the Czech Republic."

The Scots, who have been working on the site since 1990, are funded by grants from Glasgow Museums, the Gerald Averay Wainwright Fund and the Russell Trust.

Saqqara is the final key to the world of the pharaohs and experts believe that it will eventually give up artefacts of "immeasurable importance". It is also the location of the Step Pyramid, the prototype of the more celebrated pyramids.

The team has already recovered world-class artefacts, which are on display in the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. But until now, the possibility of the existence of a major town was a one-line reference in the papers of Auguste Mariette and Jacques de Morgan, two archaeologists who worked there in the 1890s.

Mr Mathieson added: "That was all there was to go on, and we found it. However, it needs resources greater than ours to excavate it. But, if there’s anybody out there with spare cash, we’d be happy to hear from them."

The team has outlined the town, which is lying 20ft down in the sand, using geo-thermal equipment. It measures approximately one mile by three-quarters of a mile.

The Scots were searching for an ancient road which would have been capable of bearing the incredibly heavy loads of building materials needed for pyramids and tombs.

In finding the town, they solved a secondary mystery which has puzzled historians.

Mr Mathieson continued: "Instead of a road, we found that there had been a lake. The materials were carried by boat, and, on the edge of the lake, there was the town.

"In the past, we have excavated a gravestone, the most significant of its kind in the world, and it’s in Cairo. Who knows what lies here? The potential is immense. The Step Pyramid is also hugely significant."

The area of the digs is divided into sectors and designated to national groups. Historians know that the people who lived there were as opulent and socially advanced as those from later periods.

However, less of what they have left behind has been discovered, and fabulous treasures might lie undiscovered, possibly the equal of those discovered by the late 19th and early 20th century archaeologists.

Mr Mathieson added: "Every archaeologist would live for breaking through that wall and finding the golden chariot, but on our budget, it would be difficult."

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