CAIRO, May 24, 2010 -- A team of Egyptian archaeologists headed by Abdel Rahman El-Aydi unearthed what he told ABC News was "the most important cemetery dating to the second dynasty," calling it an ''astonishing surprise."
The cemetery site is located southwest of Cairo in the oasis and lush city of Fayoum at Lahoun, where the team has spent the past four years digging. They've uncovered 45 ancient Egyptian tombs from varying periods.
Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni said in a statement, "Each tomb contains a painted wooden sarcophagus with the mummy of the deceased still inside it."
Egypt's top archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, said that the discoveries included an 18th dynasty tomb containing 12 wooden sarcophagi stacked on top of each other, with each sarcophagus containing a preserved mummy.
The mummies, he explained, were covered in cartonnage -- plastered layers of fiber or papyrus used to produce masks or to cover a mummified body -- which was decorated with religious texts from the Book of the Dead and scenes highlighting various ancient Egyptian deities.
But the most significant findings were 14 tombs, all from the second dynasty. El-Aydi explained to ABC News that one of the tombs was found intact inside. "We found a coffin of the deceased, a wooden coffin of the type known as a house coffin, because it has the shape of the palace or house facade of this period."
Inside this coffin the deceased was placed in a twisted position and covered in huge amounts of linen, not rags, because in that dynasty ancient Egyptians had no knowledge of the mummification process, El-Aydi said.
Other coffins were found placed in the southwest corner of this one tomb, and on the floor toward the east side was funeral furniture, consisting of huge cylindrical alabaster jars, a wooden headrest and a polished wooden offering table.
El-Aydi explained it was a surprise, because the prevailing idea was that this site dated to the 12th dynasty of King Senwosret the II's reign, but after studying the tombs and their contents, the archaeologists realized it dated 1,000 years earlier.
Most of the tombs were well-preserved, displaying their bright colors and beautiful scenery. Some of the handmade pottery, such as jars or clay vessels, were very characteristic of this period, according to the archaeologists.
The team will continue working and excavating at the site, studying it, taking photos and making drawings until its fiscal year ends in June.
After that, some of the artifacts will be exhibited in different museums, and some will be kept at Fayoum in a warehouse.
With this new finding and its historical importance, Egyptian national pride prevails: "I am happy it's an Egyptian team, trained by me, qualified archaeologists trained at the Egyptian school of archaeology. It's a national team of archaeologists," El-Aydi told ABC News.