Sekhemkhet’s previously unknown structure was excavated in the 1950s by Zakaria Goneim, an Egyptian archaeologist who had become interested in the mysterious rectangular shape in the desert while he was excavating at the Unas complex
Goneim found a great number and variety of objects during clearance of the debris, including animal bones, demotic papyri (from later periods) and a large hoard of Dynasty III stone vessels similar to Djoser’s ‘heirlooms’. The excavator’s greatest surprise was to see his first ‘gleam of gold’ – the contents of a decayed wooden casket which had contained a presumably undisturbed funerary deposit of 21 gold bracelets, a hinged gold cosmetic box in the form of a shell, electrum tweezers and a needle, and many gold, carnelian and faience beads. Sealed jars were inscribed with Sekhemkhet’s name, as was an ivory label bearing a list of linens. Goneim was convinced he had found an intact burial which had escaped the tomb-robbers and there was a great deal of excitement among state officials and the press. This was among the oldest treasures found in Egypt.
Continuing the excavations Goneim eventually reached the burial chamber which was blocked by a wall of stone masonry. Inside the chamber, which was rough-cut and undecorated, stood a highly-polished alabaster sarcophagus (still in situ) carved from a single piece of stone and uniquely blocked at one end with a sliding stone panel plastered into position. The sarcophagus was opened on 26 June 1954 with great ceremony – but to the huge disappointment of the excavator and the crowd, it was empty.