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The man’s skull with golden tongue clearly visible was discovered during excavations at Oxyrhynchus. Source: Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

Two Oxyrhynchus Mummies Discovered with Golden Tongues

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The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said on Sunday that two 26th Dynasty tombs were excavated at El-Bahnasa (Oxyrhynchus) archaeological site in the Upper Egypt governorate of Minya. What made the news stand out from the hoard is that the 2,500-year old Egyptians had been mummified with golden tongues.

Oxyrhynchus is a city in Middle Egypt located about 160 km (99.4 mi) south-southwest of Cairo and this archaeological site is considered one of the most important ancient cities ever discovered. The two recently excavated tombs contained the remains of a man and woman, respectively, and it is currently unknown if they were related to each other.

Both bodies were found within limestone sarcophaguses that had been buried around 2,500 years ago in what is known as the Saite period of Egypt. During the funeral ritual the ancient embalmers had replaced their tongues with gold plates. According to Ahram Online , Egyptian traditions maintained that golden tongues enabled the spirits of the deceased to communicate with Osiris, the god of the underworld.

These golden tongues were discovered during excavations at Oxyrhynchus. (Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)

These golden tongues were discovered during excavations at Oxyrhynchus. ( Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities )

Golden Tongues to Plead for Mercy

This gold-plated ancient discovery was made by a team of archaeologists from the University of Barcelona. The National News reports that the man was found relatively well-preserved in a sealed tomb laden with a wide range of grave goods. Among the artifacts were untouched canopic jars and a scarab, as well as “402 ushabti figurines made of faience jewelry.” Britannia explains that ushabti figures acted as a “magical substitute for the deceased owner when the gods requested him to undertake menial tasks in the afterlife.”

Unlike the untouched state of the man’s tomb, the woman’s remains had greatly deteriorated and there were no artifacts to be found. The most probable reason for this is that treasure hunters had already raided the woman’s tomb. Both mummies were found with gold plate tongues, which are not uncommon in ancient Egyptian mummies.

The Daily Mail explained that golden tongues were used to “ensure that once in the other world the spirit could speak to Osiris,” the ruler of the underworld who judged the spirits of the deceased. It was believed that gold tongues allowed the dead to convince Osiris to show mercy when it came to the destiny of their souls.

The man’s tomb at Oxyrhynchus was found sealed with all the funerary treasures inside. (Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)

The man’s tomb at Oxyrhynchus was found sealed with all the funerary treasures inside. ( Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities )

Tomb Raiders of Oxyrhynchus

The ruins of Oxyrhynchus were first discovered and identified by Vivant Denon, one of the French scholars who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte on his Egyptian campaign between 1799 and 1802. In 1897, English archaeologists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt unearthed many thousands of papyri, and further Italian and English missions were undertaken in the 1930s.

Since the beginning, this site has been marred with treasure hunters and gangs of tomb raiders who mercilessly destroyed the site stealing antiquities for a thirsty European market of private collectors. However, many of the treasures from Oxyrhynchus are not hidden in seedy smoking rooms in European castles, but are openly exhibited by the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, in the Netherlands.

The woman’s sarcophagus showed signs of having been raided and was not in a good state of preservation. (Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)

The woman’s sarcophagus showed signs of having been raided and was not in a good state of preservation. ( Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities )

Allying with a Spanish University for Support

The systematic tomb raiding at Oxyrhynchus site slowed down after an incident in 1982 whereby the Egyptian Antiquities Organization received a report that looters were actively emptying a significant tomb at El-Bahnasa. The Oxyrhynchus Mission website explains that they successfully stopped the looting and in 1992 the scope of the discoveries in this tomb persuaded the Egyptian Antiquities Organization to seek a European partner.

This is when the University of Barcelona was chosen as a research partner and financial supporter of the site. This archaeological partnership between the Egyptian Antiquities Council work and the University of Barcelona at Oxyrhynchus has since attracted a lot of inward funding from private and public institutions.

Thankfully, no longer are clandestine teams raiding one of the most important cities ever discovered, and maybe one day the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden might return its controversial collection from Oxyrhynchus, or at least explaining how they got to be in possession of the stolen artifacts. It’s even possible that some of the museum collection at Leiden originally came from the raided tomb of the recently discovered woman with a golden tongue.

Top image: The man’s skull with golden tongue clearly visible was discovered during excavations at Oxyrhynchus. Source: Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

By Ashley Cowie

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