GIZA PLATEAU, Egypt (AP) _ Excavators digging in a basin near the Sphinx closed 1991 by unearthing one of the finest statues ever found in the pyramids area.

The small limestone figure of an overseer who lived 4,400 years ago was in a simple tomb in the midst of a cemetery for foremen and craftsmen who built monuments for the pharaohs.

Egyptologists say the statue's beauty and workmanship rivals that of sculptures created for ancient royalty. The lifelike statue, with many of its original blue, black, white and brown colors still vivid, depicts a man decked out in finery in the classic pose of a pharaoh, strolling with power and grace.

Carved from the finest limestone, the statue stands eight inches tall and two inches wide. It was unearthed on Monday.

''It looks like it was carved five minutes ago,'' said Zahi Hawass, the antiquities official in charge of the pyramids area.

The statue has slender, lifelike toes and fingers. Its sculptor carved the top lip in the shape of adjacent pyramids. The overseer wears a collar-like necklace, with his wig firmly in place. A small round naval tops a kilt skirt.

Hawass said the design is typical of a statue for royalty or very high officials of the Old Kingdom's fifth dynasty, which lasted 142 years and ended in 2323 B.C.

The team has been digging in sand dunes a few miles south of the Sphinx since August 1990, when a horse ridden by an American woman tourist fell through the sand and hit an unknown tomb.

''She was more concerned about the horse than the fact that she'd accidentally made a great discovery,'' said Mansour Bauraik, an antiquities inspector. Nobody bothered to get the woman's name.