SAQQARA, Egypt – A pair of 4,300-year-old pharaonic tombs discovered at Saqqara indicate that the sprawling necropolis south of Cairo is even larger than previously thought, Egypt's top archaeologist said Monday.
The rock-cut tombs were built for high officials — one responsible for the quarries used to build the nearby pyramids and another for a woman in charge of procuring entertainers for the pharaohs.
"We announce today a major, important discovery at Saqqara, the discovery of two new tombs dating back to 4,300 years ago," said Zahi Hawass, as he showed reporters around the site Monday. "The discovery of the two tombs are the beginning of a big, large cemetery."
The discovery indicates that there is even more to the vast necropolis of Saqqara, located 12 miles south of the capital, Cairo, he added.
In the past, excavations have focused on just one side of the two nearby pyramids — the Step Pyramid of King Djoser and that of Unas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty.
The area where the two tombs were found, to the southwest, has been largely untouched.
"This means the royal cemetery is bigger than we thought," said Saleh Suleiman, the archaeologist responsible for the excavation of the two tombs.
Hawass, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said excavations will continue and further finds should shed light on the 5th and 6th dynasties of the Old Kingdom, which ruled over 4,000 years ago.
One of the tombs, about a yard wide and 2.75 yards long, has a description above the entrance about the man, Yaamat, for whom it was built. The second tomb is twice the size and includes inscriptions and an image of a seated woman.
Aidan Dodson, a research fellow at the University of Bristol's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology in Bristol, England, who was not involved in the dig, said that while the tombs themselves aren't especially significant, the possibility of a much larger cemetery is.
"It shows that the blank areas of the maps of Saqqara aren't really empty at all. It's just that archaeologists haven't got round to digging them," he said.
Excavations have been going on at Saqqara for about 150 years, uncovering a vast necropolis of pyramids, tombs and funerary complexes mostly from the Old Kingdom, but including sites as recent as the Roman era.
But despite the years of excavation, new finds are constantly being made. In November, Hawass announced the discovery of a new pyramid at Saqqara, the 118th in Egypt, and the 12th to be found just in Saqqara.
According to Hawass, only 30 percent of Egypt's monuments have been uncovered, with the rest still under the sand.
Hawass also said that a bust of Pharoah Amenhotep III that has been outside the country for about 15 years was returned to the Egypt on Sunday after a lengthy legal battle with an antiquities dealer in Britain.
Hawass said Egypt and the dealer were eventually able to resolve the question of the bust's ownership out of court without Egypt paying the dealer any money.
Egypt has been actively trying to recover artifacts stolen or looted over the years. The bust is one of about 5,000 pieces retrieved by Egypt since 2002. Hawass said he also expects the return of four statues from Sweden in the next two weeks.
The bust is one of the great statues of Amenhotep III, the ninth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, who ruled for almost 40 years during the 14th century B.C. and who is considered one of the most important rulers of ancient Egypt, said Hawass.
Amenhotep was the father of Akhenaten, who attempted to make Egypt worship a single god, the sun, making him one of the first known proponents of monotheism.