Preliminary studies of mummified remains from a recently discovered ancient tomb in Egypt suggest that mummification began 1,000 years earlier than previously thought. If confirmed, the findings “may rewrite the history of Egyptian mummification,” a scientist working on the project said.
The scientist, Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, joined a research team one year ago to help analyze remains found in a richly decorated tomb in the necropolis at Saqqara, an archaeological site 20 miles south of Cairo. Ikram was asked to confirm whether the remains dated back to Egypt’s Old Kingdom (ca. 2686–2181 B.C.E.).
Scientists had already determined that the tomb was built for a nobleman named Khuwy, who lived in the late Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Were the mummified remains found inside also that old?
Ikram’s X-rays would help find out, and also help resolve doubts about the date of the beginning of mummification in ancient Egypt. If the mummy was as old as the tomb, that would contradict previous thinking that mummification began during the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1069 B.C.E.).
“We took samples from the mummified remains to be analyzed again using the radiocarbon technique, in the laboratories of the French Institute in Cairo.”Salima Ikram
a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo
Awaiting More Precise Dating
Ikram said she found “the mummified remains date back to the Old Kingdom, based on the use of X-rays and chemical analysis.” However, the research team asked her to confirm those findings through radiocarbon dating.
“We took samples from the mummified remains to be analyzed again using the radiocarbon technique, in the laboratories of the French Institute in Cairo,” she told Al-Fanar Media via email. “The results will appear within six months.”
She added: “If we confirm that this cemetery belonged to the Old Kingdom, we will rewrite the history of mummification. This means that modern mummification techniques were used a thousand years earlier than our initial conviction that mummification techniques began with the New Kingdom.”
Discovered in April 2019, Khuwy’s tomb was selected by Archaeology Magazine as one of the top archaeological discoveries that year.
Nine Egyptian scholars have worked to unearth the tomb over the past four years.
Zeinab Hashesh, a professor of Egyptology at Beni-Suef University, was one of the first to join the team in 2018. Hashesh conducted anthropological examinations to determine the sex, age, and diseases of the remains found in the tomb.
In a phone call, Hashesh told Al-Fanar Media: “All the archaeological evidence suggest that the body in the tomb belongs to Khuwy. The tomb’s architecture, including the mural scenes and inscriptions, all belong to the Old Kingdom.”
An Exciting Discovery
Hashesh recalls the moment of the new tomb’s discovery. “While the head of the expedition was completing the cleaning and registration work for the mortuary collection of King Djedkare Isesi (a Fifth Dynasty ruler buried at Saqqara), in 2019, a new mastaba began to appear, distinguished by some royal connotations. With the completion of the excavations, we knew the name of the buried body, Khuwy, whose titles suggest a relation to the royal family.”
“Archaeological evidence that dated the cemetery back to the Old Kingdom included canopic jars from the Old Kingdom era,” said Hashesh. She explained that these jars were used to preserve the internal organs extracted from the abdominal cavity during the mummification process. “This confirms that the buried body was embalmed,” she added.
“All the archaeological evidence suggest that the body in the tomb belongs to Khuwy. The tomb’s architecture, including the mural scenes and inscriptions, all belong to the Old Kingdom.”Zeinab Hashesh
A professor of Egyptology at Beni-Suef University
All the mummified remains found inside the burial chamber belonged to one individual, said another research team member, Ahmed Gabr, a bioarcheologist specializing in human remains.
Gabr told Al-Fanar Media: “The techniques used in the mummification in this tomb, from the large amount of oils and the high quality linen found in abundance, are consistent with the mummification methods used in the New Kingdom era and beyond.”
Mummification was rare in the Old Kingdom, Gabr said, and its methods were different. The older burial technique method used bandages and plaster which were molded onto the body in a natural shape.
The importance of the discovery of Khuwy’s tomb becomes even more significant if the team confirms that the remains date back to the ancient royal family, Ikram said.
“If it turns out that the mummy dates back to the Old Kingdom, we have to review what we know about mummification at that time,” she explained. “This will extend our project, to understand why this mummy is distinguished, compared to all other mummies, which were processed in a completely different way.”
Gabr agrees. “Proving the association of the mummified remains with the Old Kingdom will change our understanding of mummification, and push us to rewrite its history again,” he said. “This means that the methods of embalming that we usually connect to the New Kingdom were known a thousand years earlier.”
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