Part of the lid of the coffin, featuring the slender sculpted face, which was discovered in Israel's Jezreel valley. Photograph: Mahmoud Illean/Demotix/Corbis
Israeli archaeologists have unearthed a rare sarcophagus featuring a slender face and a scarab ring inscribed with the name of an Egyptian pharaoh, Israel's antiquities authority said on Wednesday.
The mystery man whose skeleton was found inside the sarcophagus was most likely a local Canaanite official in the service of ancient Egypt, Israeli archaeologists said.
"This is a really beautiful face, very serene," said Edwin van den Brink, an Egyptologist and archaeologist with the antiquities authority. "It's very appealing."
Van den Brink said archaeologists had been excavating at Tel Shadud, an archaeological mound in the Jezreel valley, from December until last month.
The archaeologists first uncovered the foot of the sarcophagus and took about three weeks to work their way along the coffin. Only as one of the dig's last days arrived did they brush away the dirt to uncover the carved face.
The lid of the clay sarcophagus is shattered, but the sculpted face remains nearly intact. It features graceful eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, a long nose and plump lips. The ears are on shards separated from the face, and the long-fingered hands are depicted as if the arms were crossed atop the chest, in typical Egyptian burial pose.
Experts last found such a sarcophagus about a half a century ago in Deir al Balah, in the Gaza Strip, where 50 similar coffins were dug up, mostly by grave robbers, Van den Brink said. Some of the coffins are placed now near the entrance to the archaeology wing at the Israel Museum, in Jerusalem. Dozens were previously found in Beit Shean, in the north of Israel.
Found alongside the new sarcophagus was a scarab seal ring encased in gold, carved with the name of Pharaoh Seti I, who ruled ancient Egypt in the 13th century BC.
Seti I conquered the region of today's Israel in the first year of his reign in order to secure Egyptian trade routes and collect taxes for Egypt, said Ron Beeri, an archaeologist who participated in the dig. The man buried in the sarcophagus might have been a tax collector for the pharaoh, Beeri added.
Seti I was the father of Ramses II, often identified as the pharaoh in the biblical story of the Israelite exodus, though Beeri said there was no historical evidence to support that.
DNA tests may be conducted to determine if the man in the sarcophagus was Canaanite or Egyptian, Beeri said.
The recent archaeological discovery, like most in Israel, came by happenstance. Israel's natural gas company called in archaeologists to survey the territory before laying down a pipeline.
Van den Brink said the antiquities authority excavated only a small area, of five metres by five metres (16ft x 16ft), but that that had been enough to locate the sarcophagus, the scarab and four other human remains.
Van den Brink said the site could have been a large cemetery, so other sarcophagi could be found in future digs. "It's just a small window that we opened," he said.