In 2016, archaeologists in Egypt decided to re-excavate a site at the Saqqara necropolis that was first unearthed in the late 19th century. And as Ruth Michaelson of the Guardian reports, the new investigations have yielded major discoveries: a mummification workshop connected to a multi-chamber burial shaft, both of which were filled with relics that lend important insight into ancient Egyptian burial practices.
Officials announced the tremendous find at a recent press conference. “We are standing before a goldmine of information,” Dr. Ramadan Badry Hussein, director of the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, told journalists, according to Michaelson. “This [discovery] is so important as it’s extensive.”
The site dates to Egypt’s Saite-Persian period, which ranged from 664-404 B.C. The workshop is a rectangular structure built from bricks and limestone blocks, reports Nevine El-Aref of Aham Online. An open area of the workshop contains two large basins connected by a ramp; archaeologists think these basins once stored natron—a type of salt that was used to dry out dead bodies—and linen bandages. The excavation also revealed a subterranean chamber containing a trove of pottery, including bowls, vessels and cups etched with the names of substances that were used during the mummification process.
Preserving a body for the afterlife was a complex undertaking that involved removing the dead person's' innards, drying the body and wrapping it. The process could also involve a great number of ointments such as frankincense and myrrh, oils like cedar oil and ox fat, spices like cinnamon, and occasionally lichens, beeswax and even onions, according to the Spurlock Museum of Ancient Cultures. Mummification was expensive and so, for the most part, it was the purview of Egyptian royalty, nobility and important officials.
But the discovery at Saqqara shows that there were also distinct hierarchies among the privileged classes who were able to afford mummification. In the center of the workshop, the archaeologists discovered a large shaft leading down to a complex of burial chambers that line two hallways. While exploring these chambers, archaeologists discovered several mummies, sarcophagi and wooden coffins, according to Menna Zaki of the Associated Press. The burial complex was communal, but there were clear class differences between the dead that were interred there. Some had private chambers; others shared their final resting place.
On top of one badly decayed coffin, archaeologists found an ornate mummy mask of gilded silver, inlaid with gems and a dark stone that may be black onyx, Angy Essam writes in Egypt Today. It is exceedingly rare to find a mask still adorned with precious gems and metals, since most Egyptian tombs were looted in antiquity. Hussein called the discovery a “sensation,” according to the AP’s Zaki.
Archaeologists have also been able to glean some information about the identity of the mask’s owner. Decorations on the wooden coffin where the mask was discovered proclaim that the deceased was the “second priest” of Mut, a mother goddess, and also a priest of Niut-Shaes, a serpent form of Mut.
Many of the newly discovered artifacts will be put on display at the Grand Egyptian Museum, a sprawling institution that is scheduled to open later this year. Archaeologists will also continue to excavate the site, making their way into burial chambers that have yet to be unsealed and, in all likelihood, unlocking more of the site’s ancient secrets.