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Sunday, May 10, 2020

The business of mummification - Heritage - Al-Ahram Weekly - Ahram Online

The business of mummification

New studies show that mummification was not only an ancient Egyptian religious ritual, but a significant business proposition as well

Nevine El-Aref , Saturday 9 May 2020
photos: National Geographic
When a 26th-Dynasty mummification workshop and communal burial place was uncovered at the Saqqara Necropolis near Cairo in 2018, it made the international headlines, and a gilded silver mask of the priest of the mother goddess Mut and the serpent goddess Niut-shaes that were unearthed in it were selected by the US Archaeology Magazine as among the top 10 discoveries of the year.

After two more years of scientific research and further excavations at the site, an international team of archaeologists and scientists from the Universities of Tübingen and Munich in Germany along with the Egyptian National Research Centre in Cairo has unveiled the economic aspects of mummification. Mummification was not only an ancient Egyptian ritual for eternity, but an essential business activity as well.

"Priest-embalmers were professional entrepreneurs who offered burial packages for every budget," Egyptologist Ramadan Hussein who led the mission of the University of Tübingen mission at Saqqara told Al-Ahram Weekly. The uncovered evidence had showed that embalmers had a very good business sense and were very smart about providing different alternatives, he said.

"We have been reading about this in ancient Egyptian papyri," Hussein said, "but now we can really contextualise the business of death" for the ancient Egyptians.

He said that chemical testing of the residue of the oils and resins preserved in cups, bowls and pots found in the mummification workshop had revealed the mummification substances, including bitumen (tar), cedar oil, cedar resin, pistachio resin, beeswax, animal fat, and possibly olive oil and juniper oil, among others.

Upon the resumption of the excavations at the site, the Egyptian-German mission had uncovered a new burial chamber hidden behind a 2,600-year-old stone wall inside the 30-metre-deep communal burial shaft of the mummification workshop.


"This is the sixth burial chamber to be found in the shaft, as a large tomb complex with five burial chambers was uncovered in 2018," Hussein said.

He explained that inside the newly discovered chamber four wooden coffins in a poor state of preservation had been unearthed, among them a coffin belonging to a woman named Didibastet who was buried with six canopic jars.

"This contradicts ancient Egyptian mummification customs, as they used to embalm the lungs, stomach/spleen, intestines, and the liver of the deceased and then store them in four canonic jars under the protection of four gods known as the Four Sons of Horus," Hussein said.

The examination of the contents of Didibastet's two extra canopic jars using a CT scan and the preliminary analysis of the images indicated that the two jars contained human tissue, showing that Didibastet had possibly received a special form of mummification that guaranteed the preservation of six organs of her body and not only four.

"The mission's radiologist is currently conducting a thorough study of the images in order to identify the two extra organs," Hussein confirmed.

After studying the texts on the coffins and sarcophagi in the six burial chambers, the mission succeeded in identifying the priests and priestesses of a mysterious snake goddess known as Niut-shaes.

The indications are that the priests of Niut-shaes were buried together and that she became a prominent goddess during the 26th Dynasty. "Perhaps, she had a major temple in Memphis, the administrative capital of ancient Egypt," Hussein said.

He continued that a priestess and a priest of Niut-shaes who were buried in the same burial chamber had possibly been Egyptianised immigrants. Their names, Ayput and Tjanimit, were common among the Libyan community who settled in Egypt from the 22nd Dynasty (ca 943-716 BC) onwards.


Ancient Egypt was a multicultural society that received immigrants from different parts of the ancient world, including Greeks, Libyans, and Phoenicians, among others.

TESTS: The mission conducted a non-invasive test called X-ray fluorescence on the gilded silver mask that was discovered on the face of the mummy of a priestess of the goddess Niut-shaes.

"This test determined the purity of the mask's silver to be 99.07 per cent, higher than sterling silver at 92.5 per cent," Hussein said, revealing that the gilded silver mask was the first to be found in Egypt since 1939 and one of the few such masks ever to be found.

The mission also succeeded in discovering a gilded silver mummy mask in one of the burial chambers of the main shaft attached to the mummification workshop dating to the Saite-Persian Period (664-404 BCE). The mask belonged to a person who held the titles of "second priest of Mut and priest of Niut-shaes".

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 is also inlayed with gemstones that were once embedded in colour paste. The mask, which measures 23x18.5cm, will now be researched and conserved.

 Hussein described the discovery as "rare" and explained that the mummification workshop was originally a rectangular building constructed out of mud brick and irregular limestone blocks. It had an entrance on the southwestern corner that led into an open area with two large basins and a mud brick ramp between them.

The two basins were surrounded with mud brick walls, and it is believed that they were originally for the natron, a substance used in mummification, and the preparation of linen bandages.

The workshop also includes an embalmer's cachette with a 13m shaft that ends in a rectangular subterranean chamber where a large amount of pottery was found. This included vessels, bowls and measuring cups inscribed with the names of oils and substances used in mummification.


The workshop also has a large shaft (K 24) in the middle, which was used as a communal burial place. It measures 3x3.35x30m and has several burial chambers, including a complex cut into the bedrock at a depth of 30m. These are arranged on the sides of two hallways, and the first hallway had an intact burial chamber on the west side where three decayed wooden coffins were found on top of the western end of a large limestone sarcophagus.

A fourth mummy was found to the north of the sarcophagus and a large number of faience ushabti figurines along the northern side. Hussein said that the middle wooden coffin on top of the sarcophagus had been badly damaged and the mummy inside it had a gilded mask found on top of the face of the mummy.

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, a second priest of the goddess Mut and the priest of the goddess Niut-shaes, a serpent form of the goddess Mut.

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

The University of Tübingen mission is using state-of-the-art technology to document and record the monuments, particularly laser scanning and photogrammetry techniques. These include the creation of 3D photogrammatic models and laser scans of the burial chambers of Padinist, head of the storage department of the royal palace, Psamtek, chief physician and commander of the Libyan mercenaries, and Amentayefnakht, commander of recruits.

The mission has also worked to conserve the polychrome reliefs and inscriptions in the burial chambers. It will resume its investigation of the cemetery at Saqqara in the winter of this year.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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