Embalming secrets of ancient Egypt revealed

Written by Jack Guy, CNN

Archeologists excavating a burial chamber near Cairo have discovered ancient Egyptian embalmers were savvy business people that lured customers in with special deals to suit their budget.

Far from working exclusively for pharaohs and other VIPs, the embalmers used different materials to offer a number of different packages to clients from a variety of social classes — not unlike the funeral homes of today, which cater to different needs.

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New evidence was uncovered at the Mummification Workshop Complex — the only such workshop to be found fully intact — at Saqqara, a site about 20 miles south of Cairo, which is also home to landmarks including the Step Pyramid, considered to be the world’s oldest pyramid, according to a statement from Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Saqqara is an archeological complex around 20 miles south of Cairo.

Saqqara is an archeological complex around 20 miles south of Cairo. Credit: Egypt Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

Archeologists found a new burial chamber at the former mummification workshop, which dates from 664-525 BC, and discovered evidence of a range of materials used to embalm bodies at different price points.

“Priest-embalmers were professional entrepreneurs who offered burial packages for every budget,” said Ramadan Hussein, an Egyptologist at the University of Tübingen, Germany, who led the team, in an interview with Egyptian state media outlet Al-Ahram Weekly.

“We have been reading about this in ancient Egyptian papyri,” he told Al-Ahram, “but now we can really contextualise the business of death.”

Hussein also explained the triple role of the embalmers as professionals, priests and business people in the ministry statement.

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“We learn from several papyri that there was a class of priests and embalmers who were paid to arrange for the funeral of a deceased including the mummification of her/his body and the purchase of a grave or a coffin,” he said.

The new burial chamber was found 30 meters underground at the workshop, which was first excavated in 2018, according to the ministry.

Inside there were poorly preserved wooden coffins, one of which belonged to a woman named Didibastett.

The newly-discovered burial chamber is 30 meters underground.

The newly-discovered burial chamber is 30 meters underground. Credit: Egypt Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

While many ancient Egyptians were buried with their lungs, stomach, intestines and liver embalmed in four separate jars, Didibastett was buried with six jars.

Tests showed these two extra jars also contain human tissue, and experts believe she may have been mummified in a previously unknown way, according to the ministry.

Other mummified remains belong to priests and priestesses of a snake goddess called Niut-shaes, who became a prominent deity at the time.

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In ancient Egypt, priests were tasked with attending to the needs of a specific god or goddess, such as looking after temples built in their honor.

Two of the bodies were possibly from Libya, part of multicultural ancient Egyptian society. One of the priestesses was also wearing a gilded silver mask, the likes of which has not been found in Egypt since 1939. It is only the third ever to be found in the country.

Archeologists and chemists also tested residues in ceramics found inside the chamber. Preliminary results revealed substances used in mummification, including tar, cedar resin, beeswax, and animal fat.

Further excavations at the site are scheduled for winter 2020, according to the ministry.

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