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Bones and jars of the dead unearthed in 3,000-year-old Egyptian tombs

Egypt Ministry of Antiquities

A worker studies one of the funerary jars found inside a recently discovered burial chamber in Luxor.

Archaeologists say they have discovered a string of 3,000-year-old rock tombs in the Egyptian city of Luxor, containing the remains of wooden coffins, skeletons, furniture and canopic jars.

The tombs were dug within the funerary temple of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, who reigned from 1427 to 1401 B.C. during Egypt's 18th Dynasty. However, the newfound tombs appear to be part of a more recent cemetery. In Thursday's announcement of the discovery, Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said they date back to the beginning of a transitional period that lasted from 1075 to 664 B.C.

Ibrahim said a team led by Italian archaeologist Angelo Sesana made the discovery while cleaning up the site in the course of an excavation at Amenhotep II's temple, on the west bank of the Nile River.

"When we began digging, the area was only a mound of debris. We were in no way certain of what we would find." Sesana told the Italian news service ANSA.

Sesana, who has led excavations within the temple's ruins for 15 years, voiced excitement over the find: "It moves you like little else to bring back to life someone who sought immortality 4,000 years ago."

Each of the tombs consists of a pit that leads to a burial chamber. The wooden coffins found within the chambers bore decorations in red and black ink, and contained the remains of skeletons, Ibrahim said. Mansour Barek, the antiquities supervisor at Luxor, said the archaeologists found 12 canopic jars — some made of limestone, and others made of fired clay. Such jars were used in ancient Egypt to preserve the internal organs of the dead.

Barek said the lids of the jars were in the shape of the four sons of the Egyptian god Horus: Imsety, with a human head, the spirit who protects the liver; Hapi, a baboon-headed spirit responsible for the lungs; the jackal-headed Duamutef, who guards the stomach; and falcon-headed Qebehsenuef, who guards the intestines.

The discovery demonstrates that Amenhotep II's temple continued to be seen as an important site many years after the pharaoh's death, Ibrahim told Egypt's Ahram Online. Sesana said some of the canopic jars came from the tomb of an unidentified woman — and Egyptologist Wafaa El Saddik told the BBC that the jars were of good quality, suggesting that the tombs belonged to wealthy people. 

The antiquities ministry said the artifacts were transferred to storage in Luxor for maintenance and restoration, in preparation for museum display.

Egypt Ministry of Antiquities

Four canopic jars are sculpted to represent spirits who guard the internal organs of the dead.

More about Egyptian archaeology:

NBC News' Taha Belal contributed to this report from Cairo.

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