This article is more than 1 year old ‘A goldmine’: mummies’ secrets uncovered in Egypt

Archaeologists find mummification workshop in the Saqqara necropolis

A gilded silver mask at the dig site near the Saqqara necropolis, Egypt. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Deep below the sands of the Saqqara necropolis, archaeologists have uncovered a unique discovery they say reveals the secrets of the ancient Egyptian mummies.

A mummification workshop and adjoining burial shaft as well as five mummies, their bejewelled sarcophagi, figurines, and a gilded silver and onyx mummy mask were all unearthed at the site, which archeologists say provides a wealth of new knowledge about the mummification process.

“We are standing before a goldmine of information,” said Dr Ramadan Badry Hussein, director of the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project which oversees the excavation. Hussein beamed as he stood before a crowd of journalists and diplomats who had gathered at the dig site, in the shadow of the step pyramid of Djoser, to view the new finds.

“This [discovery] is so important as it’s extensive. We have oils and measuring cups – all of them are labelled … from this we can find the chemical composition of the oils and discover what they are,” he said.

The embalming workshop and adjoining 30-metre (98ft) burial shaft, dating from the Saite-Persian period (664-404 BC), also give clues about their ancient inhabitants’ former status.

Mummies inside the burial shaft. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

“There are clear socioeconomic differences between the mummies in the shaft,” said Hussein. “We see that mummification happened above ground, while some of those buried down there were either buried in private or shared chambers.”

The find is a boon for scholars of ancient Egypt and archeologists, who believe that the workshop and the mummies discovered in the burial shaft will provide new information about how the ancient Egyptians buried their dead. The find also comes as Egypt is preparing to open a museum to better display its rich archeological wonders, as visitor numbers slowly edge towards the highs witnessed prior to the 2011 revolution.

The site where the embalming workshop was unearthed was originally excavated in the late 19th century, but a joint project between an Egyptian and German team chose to re-excavate it in 2016.

Egypt needs a second round of excavation, focusing on the old sites explored in the early 20th century,” Hussein told the crowd. “We can use new examination and documentation techniques, and it will be fruitful every time. We find new things that were left behind.”

Further excavation will continue at the site, intended to unseal several chambers adjoining the embalming workshop as well as opening four out of the five sarcophagi later this year.

Artefacts discovered at the Saqqara site. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

“This is just the beginning,” said Dr Mostafa Waziry, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, who briefly paused between interviews to jump down into the dig site with a torch. “It’s a very rich area. I’m sure we’re going to find more.”

The discovery comes as Egypt is hoping that new ways of displaying its archeological wealth will draw in more visitors, in particular the new Grand Egyptian Museum set to open close to the famed Giza pyramid complex in 2019.

“Egypt never ceases to surprise the world in terms of new discoveries of its ancient history,” said Dr Tarek Tawfiq, director of the new museum, as he stood at the top of the excavation site in the summer heat. “We will also surprise the world with how we display these discoveries.”

An estimated 8.3 million tourists visited the Arab world’s most populous nation in 2017, a huge increase from the lean years following the 2011 revolution and 2013 military coup, as well as the downing of Metrojet KGL9268 in Sinai, which killed all 224 people on board.

But despite the new finds and museums intended to draw in more tourists, Egypt remains dogged by ongoing investigations into the incidents that drove tourists away.

Earlier this week, Egyptian officials lashed out at a statement from France’s civil aviation bureau BEA, who provided rare public criticism of Egyptian intransigence over the investigation into the 2016 crash of EgyptAir MS804 from Paris, which killed all 66 people on board.

French officials have said that the most likely cause of the crash was a cockpit fire. In an unusual public split, Egypt’s top prosecutor labelled claims by French investigators “baseless”. Egyptian officials continue to claim that terrorism was responsible for the crash.


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