PI-RAMESSE, EGYPT – Archaeologists have uncovered a mystery at an ancient palace that probably once belonged to Egypt’s famous Pharaoh Ramses II: a sets of footprints belonging to children.
The team of archaeologists was from the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany. They were excavating a large building at Pi-Ramesse, the ancient capital of Egypt during the reign of Ramses II, Egypt’s most famous architect-king. Within the structure, they discovered a mortar pit measuring eight feet across and boring 26 feet into the earth.
Rare fragments of ancient paintings were also discovered at the bottom of the pit. While archaeologists have been able to identify distinct colors, namely black, yellow, red, and blue, the fragments are extremely small, so no actual motifs were recognized that might give a clue as to when or where the paintings were made.
“Nonetheless the strokes suggest that we are dealing not just with different zones of color, but most probably polychrome figural representations,” the field director of the archaeological project, Henning Franzmeier said. “As they are found within the mortar pit, thus representing debris, we do not yet know exactly where they came from. But it might well be a good guess that they came from one of the walls of the monumental building complex.”
Beneath the mysterious fragments lies something still more baffling: the floor of the pit is covered in tiny footprints measuring just 6 inches long.
“[The footprints probably belong to] children between 3 and 5 years of age if one follows charts for modern children,” Henning Franzmeier said.
The team isn’t entirely sure whether or not more than one child left footprints at the bottom of the pit.
“The differences in size are not big enough for us to clearly differentiate,” Franzmeier explained, “And they are also not so well preserved that we could distinguish so far any other features of the feet.”
Archaeologists have no idea how these prints ended up in a pit that deep. A few theories have been posed. They could have been left there by child laborers, but the prints seem too small to belong to a child large enough to be working on a construction project. Other archaeologists have proposed that they may have belonged to royal children living at the palace complex who had been playing in the pit. But, would a royal family really let the future heirs of Egypt goof off in mud and mortar?
The City of Kings
The citer 30y of Pi-Ramesse certainly could have housed any number of children. The city was first founded by Ramses I somewhere around 1290 BC at Qantir on the banks of the Nile River, and served as a summer palace for some pharaohs, including Seti I. Ramses II grew up there. The city boasted a population numbering well over 300,000, and hundreds of poets wrote about its splendor. It was one of the largest and most prosperous settlements during the Late Bronze Age in the Middle East.
However, after the reign of Ramses II, the city fell into disrepair and swiftly declined. By 950 BC, the Egyptian pharaohs moved their capital north to Tanis, and stole stones from buildings in Pi-Ramesse to build their new palaces and plundered Pi-Ramesse’s splendid temples to furnish new ones. Eventually, the city lay abandoned and decrepit, buried beneath the sand.
The city wasn’t rediscovered until the 1990s, when archaeologists and geophysicists used sonar and magnetic equipment to find the buildings beneath the surface of the desert.
“We are able to detect walls, especially those made of mud bricks,” Henning Franzmeier explained.
In the coming months, Franzmeier and his team of German archaeologists and egyptologists will return to Pi-Ramesse to continue their excavation of the mortar pit and royal complex. They want to analyze the footprints in hope of finding out a bit more about them. Until then, the story of where they came from and how they came to rest at the bottom of a mortar pit remains a mystery.