The Fag el-Gamous cemetery, located about 60 miles south of Cairo, dates back some 1,500 years, to when the Roman and Byzantine Empire controlled Egypt. Archaeologists from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, have been excavating the large, densely populated burial ground for the past three decades, and have extracted more than 1,700 mummified human bodies—but they believe it may contain up to 1 million more.
The bodies found in the Fag el-Gamous cemetery, named for a nearby road, do not belong to Egyptian kings or other royalty, but to common people, buried in mass graves and without the “grave goods” that accompanied their more affluent contemporaries into the afterlife. Buried during the period of Roman and Byzantine control of Egypt (from the first to the seventh century A.D.), many of the bodies do not appear to have undergone the traditional mummification process, but have been preserved by the arid natural environment.
Brigham Young University archaeologists have been excavating Fag el-Gamous, along with an older pyramid located nearby, since the 1980s. They began working on the project in collaboration with scientists from the University of California Berkeley, but took sole control after Berkeley faculty members involved with the project left the university.
The researchers have already excavated 1,700 bodies from the cemetery—which spreads over some 300 acres—but they estimate many more are still buried there. According to the project’s director, BYU associate professor Kerry Muhlestein Muhlestein, Fag el-Gamous is not only large, but extremely dense in burials. In a square area measuring 5 by 5 meters and just over 2 meters deep, his team typically finds about 40 burials, many of them in shafts cut into the limestone rock measuring up to 75 feet deep. “The cemetery is very large, and so far seems to maintain that kind of burial density throughout,” Muhlestein told KSL (http://www.ksl.com/?nid=1012&sid=32790484) earlier this week. “Thus the math suggests that there are over a million mummies in the cemetery.”
Muhlestein and his colleagues are still pondering the mystery of where the bodies buried at Fag el-Gamous came from. A village located nearby seems too small for such a large burial ground, and though there is a larger town called Philadelphia (named for King Ptolemy II Philadelphus) not far away, it has cemeteries of its own. The small Seila pyramid, also on the excavation site, predates the cemetery by two millennia; it was constructed some 4,500 years ago during the reign of Snefru, the first king of ancient Egypt’s fourth dynasty. (Researchers believe it was one of the first true pyramids ever constructed, after generations of step pyramids built by Snefru’s predecessors.)
Last month, Muhlestein presented the team’s latest findings at a colloquium of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities Scholars in Toronto. One of the mummified bodies the archaeologists have uncovered is that of a child, around 18 months old. Found wrapped in a tunic, the skeleton had two bracelets on each arm. The jewelry led researchers to conclude the infant was a girl, but they’re not sure. It appears that those who buried the infant attempted to follow the process for full mummification, as parts of the body (including the toes, tongue and brain) were incredibly well preserved. Judging from this and other evidence, Muhlestein said, it seems that though the people buried at Fag el-Gamous may have been poor, they dedicated their resources to providing meaningful, beautiful burials for their dead.
At the Toronto conference, Muhlestein also revealed another Fag el-Gamous find that has gone unpublished: the team’s discovery of a male mummy that is more than seven feet tall. According to Muhlestein, who said he was not yet director of the project at the time the mummy was excavated, the deceased person was so tall the people burying him had to bend the body in half in order to fit it into the burial shaft. It would have been extremely rare for someone to achieve that height—especially given that most ancient Egyptians suffered from poor nutrition—and scientists suspect he may have suffered from some medical condition, though they would have to do more research to determine this.
The archaeologists excavating Fag el-Gamous are under pressure to do their work quickly, as the cemetery is under threat of incursion by local farmers eager to expand their cultivable fields. They are working to clear the backlog of findings that have gone unpublished, and are creating a database of the mummies they have excavated. Though only partially complete, the database has already turned up some intriguing findings about burial patterns in the cemetery. The researchers found that mummies appear to be clustered together by hair color: all those with blond hair are located in one area of the cemetery and those with red hair in another. They also found that many of the mummies possess extremely good teeth, unusual for the time, which may suggest that they belonged to the same family.