Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Mummification workshop found at Saqqara

An ancient mummification workshop has been discovered at the Saqqara Necropolis, raising hopes that the secrets of Ancient Egyptian embalming oils can at long last be revealed, reports Nevine El-Aref 

Faience ushabti figurines

Journalists, photographers, diplomats and cultural attachés all made the journey to the Saqqara Necropolis near Cairo this week and the area south of the Unas Pyramid to see the newly discovered Saite-Persian embalmers cachette and mummification workshop attached to a communal burial shaft with several burial chambers.

They gathered around the remains of the mummification workshop, an originally rectangular building constructed out of mud brick and irregular limestone blocks. The building’s entrance is on the southwestern corner, leading into an open area with two large basins and a mud brick ramp between them. 

El-Enany and Waziri on site

It is believed that these basins originally contained the natron used in the mummification process and the linen bandages used to wrap the mummies. To the northwestern side there is an embalmer’s cachette with a 13-metre shaft that ends in a rectangular-shaped subterranean chamber containing a large corpus of pottery. This includes vessels, bowls and measuring cups inscribed with the names of oils and other substances used in the mummification. 

The workshop contains a deep shaft sloping downwards by some 30 metres. It contains a series of tiny wooden ladders fixed to the bedrock and the communal burial chambers, each filled with one or two stone sarcophagi, wooden anthropoid coffins, and mummies wrapped in linen or decorated with golden sheets. Inside one of these chambers, only reachable through a small hole, hundreds of faience ushabti figurines partially buried in the sand beside a large stone sarcophagus were found.

The chambers are arranged on the sides of two hallways. The first has an intact burial chamber to the west, where three decayed wooden coffins were found on top of the end of a large limestone sarcophagus. A fourth mummy was found to the north of the sarcophagus, along with further faience ushabti figurines.

The wooden coffin on top of the sarcophagus was found in a badly damaged state, and the mummy inside it had a gilded mask on top of its face. The wooden coffin was once plastered and painted with an image of the goddess Nut, the mother of the god of the dead Osiris. The decoration also includes the titles of the owner of the mask along with his name, identifying him as the second priest of the goddess Nut and priest of the goddess Nut-shaes, a serpent form of the goddess. 

A mummy wrapped in linen with golden sheets

The theophoric name of the owner of the mask includes the name of the goddess Neith, patron goddess of the ancient 26th Dynasty. Pieces of the painted plaster carrying the rest of his name are missing, and the mission is collecting more in order to read the full name of the deceased.

“This is only the beginning,” Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany said during the visit to the site, adding that it would surely yield more discoveries after further excavation. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that the discovery had been made accidently during the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project carried out by an Egyptian-German mission directed by Ramadan Badri Hussein, a professor from Tübingen University, in an attempt to document the Saqqara tombs and shafts.  

During its survey, the mission had stumbled upon the mummification workshop and its secret shaft and embalmer’s cachette where a collection of 35 mummies has been uncovered along with four intact sealed sarcophagi that will be opened soon to explore what lies inside, El-Enany said.

One of the most important uncovered artefacts is the gilded silver mummy mask found on the face of one of the mummies uncovered inside one of the burial chambers in the communal burial shaft. Preliminary microscopic examination suggests that it is made of gilded silver, and the eyes are inlayed with a black gemstone (possibly onyx), calcite and obsidian. The wig was also inlayed with gemstones that were once embedded in colour pastes. A research and conservation project is being planned for the mask.

“The archaeological investigations are still in their early stages,” El-Enany added, telling the Weekly that chemical analysis of the remains of the mummification oils found in the measuring cups would take place in collaboration with German and Egyptian experts from the National Research Centre to discover their components. 

An intact burial chamber, its door bearing demotic inscriptions, was also among the discoveries, he said, and during the next archaeological season the mission would study this text and try to unseal the chamber to see what was hidden inside.

Ramadan climbing the shaft

AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL GOLDMINE: “We are standing on a goldmine of information on the ingredients used to preserve mummies thousands of years ago,” Ramadan Badri Hussein, director of the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project and discoverer of the mummification workshop, told the Weekly.

“We have the oils and the measuring cups, all of them labelled with the names of the oils and substances that were used in mummification but were never known about in detail until now, as their composition was an ancient Egyptian secret,” he said.

“We can analyse the remains of the oil in the cups and discover its chemical composition,” he added, saying that the new discovery also provided clues about the ancient mummies’ social status. There were clear socioeconomic differences between the mummies found in the shaft, he said, as some were buried in private or in shared chambers. Their funerary collections differed as some had luxurious items while others were more modest.

One burial chamber is dedicated to a woman named Tadi-Hur and contains a huge limestone sarcophagus, alabaster canopic jars, and 396 ushabti figurines with her name inscribed on them as well as 12 vessels of oils that are also labelled, he said. “Although Tadi-Hur’s sarcophagus is sealed and undisturbed, I expect it could house a large collection of amulets,” Hussein added. 

Gilded silver mummy mask

He said it was important to study Tadi-Hur’s mummy in order to identify her age at death. “The four intact sarcophagi found in the communal burial place are also very important because this is the first time that we have found this number of sealed sarcophagi in one place,” Hussein said, adding that three of the sarcophagi belonged to priests of the little-known serpent goddess Nutshef, which means the deceased were from the Ancient Egyptian middle class.

“The gilded silver mask is another important item that has been uncovered, and one that I could not have expected to find,” Hussein said, adding that the last similar one was found in 1939 by Sami Gabra at Tuna Al-Gabal in Minya. Its presence showed that some of the deceased in the tomb were members of the elite.

“The find is a gift for scholars, as it provides new information about how the ancient Egyptians buried their dead and the socioeconomic level of those buried,” Hussein told the Weekly.

A cartonnage mummy mask

Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said the discovery was the first to be found in the area since the excavation work carried out by Gaston Maspero in 1900, during which he found several burial shafts. 

Waziri described the discovery as “important and unique”, adding that the analysis was just beginning, and more was expected to be found. Further excavation will now continue at the site that is intended to unseal several chambers adjoining the embalming workshop as well as open four of the five sarcophagi. 

Hussein explained that the mission was using state-of-the-art documentation and recording techniques, particularly laser scanning and photogrammetry. It was creating 3D photogrammatic models and laser scans of the burial chambers of Padinist, director of the royal archives, Psamtek, chief physician and commander of the Libyan mercenaries, and Amentayefnakht, commander of recruits. 

It had also conducted conservation work on the polychrome reliefs and inscriptions found in the burial chambers, he said.

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