CAIRO — Workers cleaning a heavily traveled tourist area of a fabled temple stumbled across an ancient hoard of statues of pharaohs and gods, a discovery that researchers called a potential gold mine of historical data.
Officials said five statues so far have been dug up inside the famous Luxor Temple in the Nile River city of Luxor, about 450 miles south of Cairo.
"There are other statues still buried, and only small parts of them are showing," Sayed Tawfik, chairman of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, said.
He said he expects the statues to represent leaders and deities from a 750-year period that ended about 500 BC, shortly before the Persians conquered Egypt.
Displaying the find to President Hosni Mubarak on Friday, Egyptologist Ali Hassan described it as "the most important of the end of the 20th Century."
Hassan said the Luxor Temple discovery turned up by chance on Jan. 22 during routine cleaning of an area at the western end of the temple's courtyard, rimmed by towering and majestic columns.
Three of the five statues found so far have been identified, he said.
One is an 8-foot quartzite statue of Pharaoh Amenhophis III, who ruled Egypt from 1391-1353 BC and founded the existing Luxor Temple. The others are life-size or larger.
Another statue, 5 1/2-feet long and made of black diorite, depicts the cow-headed goddess Hathor, guardian of women, beauty and love. The third identified statue, made of granite, is of General Haremhab, a soldier who usurped the Egyptian throne at the end of the 18th dynasty after Tutankhamun and his caretaker Aya died.
Hassan said the Amenhophis III statue became visible as workers were cleaning.
"Nobody expected such a find because the area is visited by so many tourists each day," he said.
Until Friday, the cache remained covered and under guard as antiquities officials debated whether excavating the relics would damage the fragile temple.