LAHUN, Egypt (Reuters) - Archaeologists have found a nearly 5,000-year-old tomb near Egypt's mud brick Lahun pyramid, in a sign that the site held religious significance a millennium before previously thought, the site head said Tuesday.
The find, down crumbling steps in sand covered desert rock, debunks a prior understanding by archaeologists that the site dates back only to 12th dynasty pharaoh Senusret II who ruled 4,000 years ago, archaeologist Abdul Rahman Al-Ayedi said.
"The existence of this tomb is very significant because now we know that Senusret II, the builder of the pyramid, is not the founder of this site," Ayedi told Reuters in an interview.
"It must have had religious significance in ancient Egypt, so that's why he chose it for his pyramid," he added.
Egypt, whose economy relies heavily on tourism, has made several significant discoveries this year including a rare intact mummy found in February in a sealed sarcophagus near the world's oldest standing step pyramid at Saqqara, near Cairo.
Ayedi said second dynasty tombs had never before been found at Lahun, site of Egypt's southernmost pyramid, or elsewhere around the nearby Fayoum oasis, 60 km (35 miles) south of Cairo.
Inside the tiny tomb, too small for a person to stand, a box-like wood coffin contains what is left of the remains of a 40 to 49-year-old man who was likely a significant figure in the ancient Egyptian government of the time, Ayedi said.
The body, buried in a bent position and wrapped in linens, was not well preserved because the tomb predates the era in which ancient Egyptians mummified their dead, Ayedi added.
"This was a very early example of a coffin ... The body was buried flexed. The lid of the coffin was vaulted and the side of the coffin has a representation of the facade of a palace or a house," he said.
The find comes shortly after Ayedi's team last month announced it had unearthed a cache of mummies dating to a later period in brightly painted coffins in a necropolis at the site -- the first to be found in the shadow of the Lahun pyramid.
Ayedi said he had initially wanted to dig at little-known Lahun because he was not satisfied with the result of the first excavation there in the 19th century, saying it did not match the site's significance.
His team found the second dynasty tomb by chance this season while excavating the recently unearthed necropolis after Ayedi stumbled across a pottery shard in the sand that he recognized as dating back to an older era.
"I was just walking by and I found a (shard from a) pottery vessel like this one," Ayedi said as he held up a slender vessel inside the stone-cut tomb. "It was very characteristic."
"I was very optimistic to find something second dynasty," he added. "We started to investigate this area. Suddenly we found this stairway tomb."
Ayedi said the tomb's occupant was buried with his prized possessions, including an offering table, a headrest, two spears and a bed constructed of imported pine from Lebanon that could shed light on ancient Egyptian carpentry techniques.
Archaeologists found the main entrance to the Lahun pyramid last year, and later found storage jars and other objects inside before finding mummies in nearby tombs in recent months, Ayedi said.
Archaeologists hope to start digging soon in search of the tomb of Cleopatra and possibly her lover Mark Antony on Egypt's north coast. Cleopatra, facing possible captivity in Rome, is alleged to have killed herself by the sting of an asp in 30 BC.
Writing by Cynthia Johnston