History Stories

The new find reveals exactly what oils and other substances were used by the ancient embalmers.

Archaeologists recently unearthed an ancient mummy workshop, complete with statues, jars, a gilded silver and onyx mask and five mummies with sarcophagi, at the Saqqara necropolis, which sits beneath the Nile Delta to the west of Memphis.

Mummy workshops, as the term implies, were the places where ancient Egyptians embalmed and prepared dead bodies for his or her life in the next world. Archaeologists hope the new discovery will help reveal exactly how ancient Egyptians managed to preserve the dead.

“We are standing before a goldmine of information,” said Ramadan Badry Hussein, director of the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, according to The Guardian. “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.”

We don’t know exactly how mummification was done, but we do know it was an elaborate process that took about 70 days. Handlers started the ceremonial process by washing the body and removing its internal organs, then drying out the body and organs with salt for around 40 days. Afterward, they placed the organs in canopic jars and rubbed the body with unknown oils, which archaeologists hope to identify by studying those found in the workshop. Then began the lengthy process of wrapping the body with strips of linen.

Artifacts from Mummy Workshop Discovered

Gilded mummy masks, pharaonic artifacts and statuettes on display in front of the step pyramid of Saqqara, Egypt after being excavated. (Credit: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

The discoveries could also illuminate how mummification differed by class. Although people of all socioeconomic groups went through this process, wealthy and important people received the best treatment.

A burial shaft containing 35 mummies with sarcophagi was also found adjoining the workshop. The shaft dates to 664-404 B.C.E., a period including the last Egyptian dynasty and Persian conquest of Egypt.

“We have so many mummies that were discovered,” Hussein told NBC News. “Some buried with nothing, others buried with objects that are moderate in terms of value. Others with very, very expensive objects like the gilded mask that we are putting on display today.”

The detailed mask—which includes painted-on eyes—comes from one of the five mummies in the workshop. That mummy was a second priest to Mut, a sky goddess and divine mother. Its sarcophagus also contained beaded netting and gilded images of other gods.

The announced discovery of the workshop comes several months after Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry revealed it’d found a 4,400-year-old tomb at the Saqqara necropolis. The necropolis is the oldest burial ground in united Egypt, which formed from Upper and Lower Egypt around 3150 B.C.E. The government hopes these discoveries will aid the country’s flagging tourism industry.

In 2010, Egypt’s archaeological wonders helped draw 14 million international tourist visits, according to the World Bank. Yet after the 2011 revolution, tourism sharply declined, dropping to 5 million in 2016. For the Egyptian government, archaeological discoveries aren’t just a way of discovering more about the past—they’re also something that could boost the economy.

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