Intriguing discoveries from million-mummy necropolis in Egypt revealed
Known officially as Fag el-Gamous (Way of the Water Buffalo), the ‘Million Mummy Necropolis’, is an enormous cemetery that is believed to contain over one million burials of ordinary Egyptian citizens that were naturally mummified by the hot and dry desert sands over 1,500 years ago. Over three decades of excavations by Brigham Young University in Utah have revealed some incredible finds, the latest of which include the remains of giant male over 7 foot tall, an infant child wearing a tunic and jewelry, and unique groupings of burials clustered according to hair coloring, including blond and redheaded mummies.
The Fag el-Gamous necropolis, which lies along the eastern edge of the Fayum depression near Seila in Egypt, dates to the time when the Roman or Byzantine Empire controlled Egypt, from the 1st to the 7th century AD.
“The cemetery itself, covering approximately 300 acres (125 hectares), is almost entirely unplundered, though repeated digging for interment of bodies and later subsidence of the burial shafts have left the entire area in a very disturbed condition,” writes C. Wilfred Griggs from the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University (BYU). Project Director Kerry Muhlestein, an associate professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, said in a paper he presented at the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities Scholars Colloquium, "We are fairly certain we have over a million burials within this cemetery. It's large, and it's dense."
The burials in the Fag el-Gamous necropolis are extremely dense, leading researchers to conclude that there are over 1 million interments in the 300 acre-cemetery. Credit: Brigham Young University.
Griggs explains that the interments consist of shafts hewn through limestone bedrock, ranging from 1 to 23m in depth, into which shrouded remains in wooden sarcophagi were placed. Rocks were placed over the coffins and gypsum plaster poured on top, sealing the burial in its tomb.
An analysis of the relatively few grave goods that have been uncovered have led archaeologists to conclude that the cemetery was used for ordinary citizens of low status. “The observations that most burials do not have jewelry associated with them, and that the artifacts are made from relatively inexpensive and commonly available materials… lead us to the conclusion that burial jewelry in the excavated portion of the cemetery had a sentimental value for the families associated with burying the deceased, rather than religious or commercial value,” writes Griggs.
According to a new report published in LiveScience, one of the recent discoveries at Fag el-Gamous includes the preserved remains of an infant found buried with several other mummies. The child had been wrapped in a tunic and wore two bracelets on each arm (see featured image) and a necklace. Since most jewelry in the necropolis has been found in female burials, the researchers believe the infant is a girl.
Archaeologists estimate the infant was 18 months old when she died. "She was buried with great care, as someone who obviously loved her very much did all they could to take care of this little girl in burial," the researchers wrote on the BYU Facebook Page. It's "very sad, but they succeeded. It was a beautiful burial."
A cluster burial with two adults and two children wrapped in fabric. Credit: Brigham Young University
One of the more surprising discoveries at the necropolis was the discovery of a mummy belonging to a male that was over 7 feet (2 meters) tall, incredibly unusual considering the poor nutrition of the citizens buried there. Muhlestein told Live Science that the great height may be related to a medical condition that caused an excess of growth hormone, but more research is needed to confirm whether this was the case.
The male was so tall that he did not fit into the burial shaft that had been prepared for him, “so they bent him in half and tossed him in," Muhlestein told the audience at the presentation at the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities Scholars Colloquium in Toronto last month.
Blond and redheaded mummies
Another curious finding at Fag el-Gamous was a large proportion of mummies with blond and red hair, which were each clustered together in the same area. These clusters are interesting because they suggest "perhaps we have family areas or genetic groups [in certain areas], but we're still trying to explore that," Muhlestein said.
Griggs writes in his paper ‘Excavating a Christian Cemetery Near Selia, in the Fayum Region of Egypt’ that out of 37 adults analyzed, whose hair was still preserved, researchers found that 4 were redheads, 17 were blondes, 12 with light or medium brown hair, and only 5 with dark brown or black hair. “Of those whose hair was preserved 54% were blondes or redheads, and the percentage grows to 87% when light-brown hair color is added,” writes Griggs. “Such a preponderance of light-colored hair was unexpected, and it will be interesting to see if this trait continues to be exhibited throughout the cemetery.”
Redheaded female found at Fag el-Gamous. Credit: Brigham Young University
Despite over 30 years of research at the cemetery, archaeologists still do not know where more than a million mummies could have come from. The necropolis is fairly remote with only a small village nearby. There is a larger ancient town fairly close that was named Philadelphia after Ptolemy II Philadelphus, but it had a cemetery of its own.
"It's hard to know where all these people were coming from," Muhlestein told Live Science.
It is hoped that further excavations may answer some of the intriguing questions that have been raised by the million-mummy necropolis.
Featured image: The arm and hand of a young infant wearing a bracelet found at Fag el-Gamous. Credit: Brigham Young University.