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The silver facemask gilded with gold found on the face of the mummy.

2,000-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy Workshop and Goldmine of Treasures Unearthed in Saqqara

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A team of Egyptian-German Archeologists announced to the world’s media yesterday that their recent dig in Saqqara, Egypt, led to the unearthing of “a rare mummification workshop containing mummies and sarcophagi.” And among the buried treasures was a “silver face mask gilded with gold dating back to between 664 BC and 404 BC,” a press statement said.

Mummies have haunted popular culture since Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, but early cinema had installed the whole idea of a “mummy’s curse” in the human psyche. Boris Karloff starred in the 1932 movie  The Mummy and the 1999 movie  The Mummy and its sequel  The Mummy Returns, breathed air into the trend of giant mummies being controlled by tormented, vengeful spirits caught somewhere between life and death.

An engraved stone sarcophagus found in the burial chamber.

An engraved stone sarcophagus found in the burial chamber. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities

Mask of Precious Metals

Yesterday, Ramadan Badry Hussein, head of the Egyptian-German team, from the University of Tübingen in Germany told journalists at Live Science that the mummies mask had eyes containing “calcite, obsidian and a black gemstone” and he added that “Very few masks of precious metal have been preserved to the present day, because the tombs of most ancient Egyptian dignitaries were looted in ancient times” and that the "finding of this mask could be called a sensation.”

Mummy Workshop

The archaeologists first excavated a building made of mudbrick and limestone which they suspected was a mummification workshop as it contained “bowls and measuring cups containing oils and named with other substances used for mummifying bodies.” They found two large basins which they believe might have been used to “dry mummies with natron and prepare bandages that would be used to wrap them,” the statement said.

Researchers and media gather in the newly-discovered mummy workshop

Researchers and media gather in the newly-discovered mummy workshop. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities

The team of archeologists told reporters that they then discovered the mummification complex containing “several burial shafts dug into the ground, some of them extending more than 100 feet (30 meters) deep that lead down to several burial chambers holding mummies, sarcophagi, alabaster vessels (used to hold the organs of the deceased).” They also discovered a range of shabti figurines - which acted as servants to the deceased in their voyage through the afterlife and the mask was discovered covering the mummified face of a body inside a badly damaged wooden coffin with an image of a goddess called Mut blazoned upon it.

Dozens of shabti figurines unearthed in the burial shaft.

Dozens of shabti figurines unearthed in the burial shaft. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities

Alabaster Vessels unearthed in the newly-discovered burial shaft.

Alabaster Vessels unearthed in the newly-discovered burial shaft. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities

Ancient Roots

Mummification has its roots in Egypt’s climate and geography and the oldest mummies date back to the fourth millennium BC. At that time bodies were buried in the desert where the conditions dried and preserved the human remains but as burial customs evolved, caskets and tombs were adopted which separated the bodies from the ground, and Egyptians began developing techniques to preserve bodies before burial.

Five mummified bodies were recovered. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities

A stone sarcophagus found in one of the chambers.

A stone sarcophagus found in one of the chambers. Credit: Ministry of Antiquities

According to an article in National Geographic, mummification techniques were knitted together with religious beliefs, which described people as “an amalgam of elements.” A person’s body, shadow and name were regarded as material aspects while the spirit was the  ka, or cosmic energy received at birth; the  ankh, or vital breath; and the  ba, the personality. These elements were momentarily separated at the moment of death which caused much anguish to the Egyptian mind, but the process of mummification let the spirit of a deceased person recognize its former body, to which it returned, ready to be reborn.

And regarding “why” Egyptians mummified dead bodies, specialists believe the entire mummification ritual echoed the creation story of the god Osiris, ruler of the underworld, who after being killed by his brother Seth had his body parts scattered across the land. Only when the goddess Isis intervened and reunited his fragmented form was Osiris restored to life, and this is why in Egyptian art we so often see Osiris being mummified by the god Anubis. The myth essentially highlights how ancient Egyptians held a belief that the soul couldn’t navigate the otherworld, unless its physical body was in a state of wholeness.

Excavation and mapping of this newly discovered tomb complex is sponsored by the ‘German Research Foundation’ and many of the researchers are from the University of Tübingen. "We are in front of a goldmine of information about the chemical composition of these oils," archaeologist Ramadan Hussein told a press conference yesterday and added "It's only the beginning," said the minister for antiquities, Khaled al Anani, and he added that the sites were likely to hold more secrets which would be uncovered with further excavation.

Top image: The silver facemask gilded with gold found on the face of the mummy. Credit: University of Tübingen, Ramadan B. Hussein

By Ashley Cowie



What a marvelous discovery!

Egypt is amazing, it so dry everything is really well preserved. I wish the scientists could work out how they were doing guiding, there are three methods:
1. Leaf (hammer gold flat).
2. Create an amalgam with mercury, apply in liquid state and boil off the mercury (bit dangerous but they were not to know this). Likely for ultrafine coating, but it would not work well for these type of forms as the liquid would just roll off.
3. Electroplating and this would suggest they had something like the Baghdad batteries (again a nano fine layer could be applied, may work better if a brush technique was applied).
If the layers are less than 6 microns, it suggest the last two methods are more likely.

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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