Deep beneath an ancient Egyptian burial site, a team of archaeologists are exploring tombs that were first excavated over a century earlier. This time around, though, they discover something truly incredible: an all-too-rare insight into the enigmatic process of mummification. Yes, the find promises new revelations about the methodology behind this mysterious and long-forgotten rite.
From the Great Pyramid of Giza to the countless relics that fill museum cabinets around the world, the influence of ancient Egypt can still be seen globally today. Yet however much we already know about this great North African civilization, there’s always more to learn. There is, after all, much about ancient Egyptian culture and traditions that for now, at least, remains lost to time.
The story of one of the world’s oldest and grandest cultures began way back in the 31st century B.C. with the unification of the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The king responsible, Narmer, also known as Menes, is today regarded as having been the first pharaoh, although the Egyptians themselves wouldn’t come to use this term until almost 2,000 years later. Nonetheless, the template created by Narmer – a template now known as the Early Dynastic Period – would endure for about 3,000 years.
During those early days, the ancient Egyptians also founded Memphis – the first capital of their great kingdom. Indeed, for millennia, the city remained the most important in the region. And even though Memphis eventually lost its status after the founding of Alexandria in the fourth century B.C., its ruins continue to fascinate archaeologists to this day.
So, too, do this bygone culture’s practices. And of all the many arcane rites of ancient Egypt, among the most fascinating is that of mummification. Now, it’s often observed that the process was carried out to preserve human remains in preparation for the afterlife. However, the full story is more complex and nuanced than that.
According to experts, the practice of mummification may date as far back as the earliest Egyptian dynasties. Apparently, it has its roots in the ancient belief that the human soul could be broken down into three parts. And it was feared that without the body to act as a vessel for these different elements, they could become scattered and lost.
Because of this belief, the ancient Egyptians were terrified of any harm coming to their physical bodies after death. So, those with the means often took steps to safeguard their corpses. For example, sometimes tombs would be inscribed with prayers that were designed to shield their inhabitants from harm.
Keen, then, to stay in top condition for the afterlife, ancient Egypt’s richer inhabitants would choose to have their corpses mummified after their death. And although the associated rituals changed over time, it is believed that the essential motivation – preserving the physical body as a vessel for one’s immortal soul – remained the same across the centuries.
Ancient scripts suggest that mummification took approximately 70 days and involved a number of different stages. First, the body was cleaned and prayed over before then being bathed in a primitive disinfectant. After that, the organs were taken from the corpse and mummified in a separate process, following which they were interred next to the cadaver in vessels known as canopic jars.
Subsequent to the organs being removed, the body was left to dehydrate, with salt being used to speed up the drying process. Then after about a month, the corpse underwent another 30 days of ritual preparations that included it being anointed with various oils. And eventually, the cadaver was swathed in linen – the final step in a process that the ancient Egyptians believed imbued mere humans with a measure of immortality.
Given that the ancient Egyptians practiced mummification thousands of years ago, our understanding of the process today is remarkable. Yet many mysteries remain. For example, we still do not fully grasp how the different perfumes and oils were used to preserve bodies – or of what, exactly, they were composed.
Fascinatingly, then, a recent discovery looks set to shed some light on these enduring puzzles. The find was uncovered in Saqqara – the enormous ancient Egyptian burial site associated with the former capital city of Memphis. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area is also home to the Pyramids of Giza – arguably the best-known remnants of this lost world.
Now, according to legend, Memphis was founded back in the 31st century B.C. when the first pharaoh channeled the water of the Nile and built his capital on its banks. And by the time that the city was finally surpassed in standing by Alexandria, it had apparently served as the focal point of ancient Egypt for almost 3,000 years. What’s more, some experts believe that at at least two points in Memphis’ history, it was the biggest city in the world, with a population of around 30,000.
With so many inhabitants, then, the citizens of Memphis of course needed a sizeable burial ground. And during the Early Dynastic Period, the first of the city’s nobles were interred at Saqqara. Later, kings began building tombs and pyramids in the necropolis, and today the site covers more than 62 square miles.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the rich history of Saqqara has caught the attention of archaeologists over the years. And in the 19th century, the first excavations took place at a site close to the Pyramid of Unas – a Fifth Dynasty pharaoh who ruled ancient Egypt during the middle of the 24th century B.C.
After that initial excavation, the site at Saqqara was left undisturbed for more than 100 years. But then in 2016 a joint team of German and Egyptian archaeologists decided to take another look. And intriguingly, the researchers hoped to use the latest technological advances to reveal new insights about the location.
Subsequently, in July 2018, a group of officials and journalists gathered at Saqqara to hear the results of the fresh probe. And according to the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project’s director, Dr. Ramadan Badry Hussein, there had been some exciting discoveries. “We are standing before a goldmine of information,” he told the audience.
Buried beneath the ancient necropolis was an astonishing discovery: the archaeologists had uncovered a kind of proto-funeral parlor where mummification once took place. According to experts, the ancient workshop is the first such location ever found – and it is thought to date from the Saite-Persian Period of between 664 and 404 B.C. During this time, the Egyptian Saite Dynasty, followed by the Persian Achaemenid Empire, ruled over the region.
But what else do we know about the early funeral parlor itself? Well, it seems that this mummy workshop was constructed from limestone and mud bricks and was equipped with vats where the bodies would have been prepared. However, this was actually far from the most exciting discovery that was made at the site. In the depths of a 40-foot shaft, you see, the archaeologists found a chamber packed with incredible artifacts.
Amazingly, the pit contained hundreds of cups and bowls that had been used in the embalming process thousands of years ago. What’s more, various of the containers were marked with labels detailing the substances that they had once held – as well as guidance on how to apply them. And archaeologists hope that, together, these artifacts will shine new light on the ancient practice.
“This [discovery] is so important, as it’s extensive,” Hussein explained. “We have oils and measuring cups – [and] all of them are labeled. From this we can find the chemical composition of the oils and discover what they are.” And the site has also thrown up clues as to who exactly was buried there.
You see, an underground passage stretching for almost 100 feet was discovered linking the embalming workshop’s courtyard to the burial chambers. And inside the chambers, archaeologists uncovered dozens of mummified bodies. In addition, the researchers found several sarcophagi, one of which appeared to be the final resting place of a woman named Tadihor.
Interestingly, too, the team found a number of afterlife-related statuettes, known as ushabti, surrounding Tadihor’s sarcophagus. Forged from a type of glazed pottery called faience, these figurines were typically arranged in the tombs of the ancient Egyptians. Apparently, those ancients believed that the ushabti would follow them into the afterlife, where they would then take care of chores.
Elsewhere, archaeologists discovered a wooden coffin that was decorated with elaborate plaster and paint. And inside, the team found the mummified remains of an individual. From looking at the coffin’s markings, experts deduced that the remains were those of a priest who had once worshipped the Egyptian mother goddess, Mut, and Niut-shaes, her serpentine alter ego. However, it was the object covering the mummy’s face that was the most intriguing.
Amazingly, the mummified priest’s body was found to be wearing a mask that had been forged from gilded silver, with inlaid accents of obsidian, calcite and precious onyx. Now, according to experts, such a discovery is incredibly rare. And it is believed that the artifact represented a crucial stage in the journey of the deceased.
“Gilded silver masks had a deep religious meaning,” Hussein told Archaeology Magazine. “Egyptian religious texts indicate that the bones of the gods are made of silver and their flesh is made of gold. A mummy mask of silver and gold is a step toward the transformation of the deceased into a god.”
However, it doesn’t appear to have been just priests and nobles who were laid to rest at this site. “There are clear socioeconomic differences between the mummies in the shaft,” Hussein explained to the audience assembled at Saqqara. “We see that mummification happened above ground, while some of those buried down there were either buried in private or shared chambers.”
For Hussein and his team, the discovery represents an incredible opportunity to learn more about ancient Egypt. In particular, it offers fresh insights into the complex ways in which this civilization regarded death. And the archaeologists’ success has also served as an effective showcase of the benefits of revisiting old sites when armed with new technology.
“Egypt needs a second round of excavation, focusing on the old sites explored in the 19th century,” Hussein enthused. “We can use new examination and documentation techniques, and it will be fruitful every time. We find new things that were left behind.” Meanwhile, experts plan to continue exploring Saqqara.
According to Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities head, Dr. Mostafa Waziri, the site could yet yield many more exciting discoveries. In fact, Waziri interrupted the press conference in Saqqara to offer his own personal views on the excavations. “This is just the beginning,” he told the crowd. “It’s a very rich area. I’m sure we’re going to find more.”
It’s worth noting, too, that the survival of such incredible artifacts at Saqqara was made all the more astounding by the region’s recent tumultuous past. In particular, back in 2011, protests against police brutality in Egypt escalated into full-blown revolution. And when looters took to the streets, Saqqara’s storerooms were ransacked a number of times.
Yet while other Egyptian archaeological sites – such as the necropolis at Dahshur and the burial mounds at Lisht – suffered greatly during the revolution, most of the monuments at Saqqara escaped serious damage. Political unrest in the region continued, however, and the visitors who had once flocked to its ancient ruins began to disappear.
Before the revolution, tourism in Egypt had reached a peak of almost 15 million visitors a year. But in 2011 that figure plummeted to just nine million. Then, in 2013, a military coup saw President Mohamed Morsi ousted. And to the international community, this provided even more reason to stay away from the country – notwithstanding its archaeological treasures.
Yet as time passed and the region stabilized, the Egyptian authorities started to dream up ways to bring tourists back to the area. And naturally, archaeology played a central role in these plans. So it was that in 2012 workers began construction on the Grand Egyptian Museum – an ambitious project for which plans had been in the pipeline for 20 years.
A dedicated archaeological museum, the structure is set to be the largest of its kind in the world, packed with artifacts from ancient Egypt. The museum is located not far from the Giza pyramid complex and will also feature some of the area’s most famous discoveries – such as the mummy and grave goods of the boy-king Tutankhamun.
For the Grand Egyptian Museum’s director, Dr. Tarek Tawfiq, it’s an opportunity to reintroduce the treasures of this fascinating country. “Egypt never ceases to surprise the world in terms of new discoveries of its ancient history,” he told the crowd at Saqqara. “We will also surprise the world with how we display these discoveries.”
The opening of the world’s most ambitious archaeological museum has not been plain sailing, though. Apparently, selected artifacts from the Saqqara dig were due to be displayed when the first phase of the facility was scheduled to open in 2018. But various delays have kept the doors of the attraction firmly closed.
Now, it is believed that the Grand Egyptian Museum’s doors will remain completely shut until at least 2020. It’s further speculated that the full opening of the new facility will follow in 2022 – to mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. At the same time, excavations have continued at the site of the mummification workshop. And there, archaeologists have been planning to unseal more burial chambers and investigate their contents.
Egypt’s tourist industry, meanwhile, seems to be slowly recovering. Indeed, in 2017 some 8.3 million people visited the country – a massive leap from the 5.5 million recorded the previous year. And with innovations such as the Grand Egyptian Museum, it is hoped that these numbers will continue to increase.
Of course, an increased interest in the archaeology of ancient Egypt can likely only mean good things for sites such as Saqqara as more money also flows into the country. But does this ruined necropolis still have some secrets left to reveal? Well, with so many mysteries remaining lost in the past, it seems likely that there are a whole lot of great discoveries yet to come.