Richly Adorned Egyptian Tomb Could Rewrite the History of Mummification

A new analysis of a Fifth-Dynasty official’s mummy suggests sophisticated embalming techniques are 1,000 years older than previously believed

interior of tomb with colorful paintings
Researchers discovered Khuwy's richly painted tomb in 2019. Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

A new analysis of an ancient Egyptian mummy suggests that sophisticated techniques for preserving the dead may be 1,000 years older than previously believed. The discovery centers on the tomb of a high-ranking Old Kingdom official known as Khuwy, reports Kamal Tabikha for the National.

Archaeologists excavated the mummy at the Saqqara necropolis, south of Cairo, in 2019. Hieroglyphs on the wall of the tomb where the deceased was laid to rest show that the burial took place during the Fifth Dynasty period, which spanned the early 25th to mid-24th century B.C.E. Pottery and jars used to store body parts removed during the man’s mummification also appear to date to the time of the Old Kingdom.

As Dalya Alberge reports for the Observer, researchers previously believed that high-quality linen dressings and resin of the kind employed in Khuwy’s mummification weren’t used until much later.

“Until now, we had thought that Old Kingdom mummification was relatively simple, with basic desiccation—not always successful—no removal of the brain, and only occasional removal of the internal organs,” Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, tells the Observer. “Indeed, more attention was paid to the exterior appearance of the deceased than the interior.”

Ikram and her colleagues are set to share their initial findings in an upcoming episode of the National Geographic series “Lost Treasures of Egypt.” The team plans to conduct additional tests on the mummy, investigating the possibility that it may not be Khuwy, or that the tomb was repurposed for a different burial much later. 

“I remain hesitant until we can conduct carbon-14 dating,” Ikram tells the National.

She adds, “If this is indeed the mummy of Khuwy, this will truly be a unique discovery that dramatically shifts our understanding of the history of the Old Kingdom.”

Ancient illustration of mummification
The findings will be featured in an upcoming episode of National Geographic's "Lost Treasures of Egypt" series. National Geographic / Windfall Films

The tests, which will take six to eight months to complete, will offer a more definitive answer regarding the mummy’s age. If dated to the Old Kingdom, the find would expand scholars’ understanding of Fifth-Dynasty trade networks, suggesting extensive trade with neighboring empires. The resin used to preserve the body would likely have been imported from Lebanon.

Tom Cook of Windfall Films, which is producing the National Geographic series, tells the Observer that Ikram was initially skeptical of the idea that the mummy dated to the Fifth Dynasty.

“[Researchers] didn’t think the mummification process [then] was that advanced,” he says. “So her initial reaction was ‘This is definitely not Old Kingdom.’ But over the course of the investigation, she started to come round.”

The tomb where the mummy was found features remarkable wall paintings rendered in “royal colors”—a choice that suggests Khuwy may have been related to Fifth-Dynasty pharaoh Djedkare Isesi, reported Jessica Stewart for My Modern Met in 2019. The L-shaped tomb’s architecture, particularly a tunneled entrance more typically found in pyramids, further indicates that Khuwy was a person of high status, per Jack Guy of CNN.

The team’s findings will appear in a November 28 episode of “Lost Treasures of Egypt” titled “Rise of the Mummies.”

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