Burial Chamber, Snake Goddess and Embalmer Secrets Discovered in Saqqara!
Egyptian Ministers have announced exciting new discoveries at the Mummification Workshop Complex first unearthed in Saqqara in 2018. A hidden burial chamber has been uncovered at the bottom of the communal burial shaft of the Workshop, and scientists from the University of Tübingen in Germany have identified that some of those buried in the adjoining large tomb complex were priests and priestess of a mysterious snake goddess, known as Niut-shaes. In addition, studies on some of the findings have revealed key insights into the ‘business of death’ in Egypt and how embalmers offered a series of mummification packages for every customer!
The Mummification Workshop Complex at Saqqara. The famous step pyramid of Saqqara can be seen in the background. Credit: Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
New Burial Chamber and Coffins
The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced Sunday that a new burial chamber had been found at the Mummification Workshop Complex of the 26th Dynasty (ca. 664-525 BC) uncovered in Saqqara. The complex consists of several burial shafts, some extending more than 100 feet (30 meters) deep that lead to burial chambers holding 54 mummies and skeletons, five sarcophagi and alabaster vessels containing organs of the deceased. Also found was an Embalmer’s cachet of pottery, thousands of shawabtis figurines and a very rare gilded silver mummy mask.
The newly found chamber was found behind a 2,600-year-old stone wall and contained four wooden coffins.
The newly discovered burial chamber with four wooden coffins. Credit: Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
Mystery of the Extra Canopic Jars
Dr. Ramadan Badri Hussein, the Director of the mission of the University of Tübingen at Saqqara, said that one of the coffins belonged to a woman called Didibastett. She was buried with six canopic jars, which contradicts the tradition that was practiced in ancient Egypt to embalm the lungs, stomach, intestines, and the liver of the deceased, and then to store them in four jars under the protection of four gods, known as the Four Sons of Horus. These were four gods in Egyptian religion (Imsety, Duamutef, Hapi and Qebehsenuef) who were essentially personifications of the four canopic jars.
The Mission examined the content of Didibastet’s two extra canopic jars using a computerized tomography (CT) scan, and the preliminary analysis of the images indicates that the two jars contain human tissue. However, further analysis is needed to identify which organs are in the jars. The researchers have hypothesized that, for unknown reasons, Didibastet received a special form of mummification that preserved six organs of her body instead of four.
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One of the mystery canopic jars containing an unidentified organ. Credit: Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
The Snake Goddess
After studying the texts on the coffins and sarcophagi in the burial chambers, the mission identified priests and priestesses of a mysterious snake goddess, known as Niut-shaes. Indications are that the priests of Niut-shaes were buried together, and that she became a prominent goddess during Dynasty 26. Perhaps, she had a major temple in Memphis, the administrative capital of ancient Egypt.
A priestess and a priest of Niut-shaes, who were buried in the same burial chamber, were possibly Egyptianized immigrants. Their names, Ayput and Tjanimit, were common among the Libyan community who settled in Egypt from Dynasty 22 (ca. 943-716 BC) onward. Ancient Egypt was a multicultural society that received immigrants from different parts of the ancient world, including Greeks, Libyans, and Phoenicians among others.
Some of those buried at the complex were identified as priests and priestesses of a mysterious snake goddess. Credit: Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
The Gilded Silver Mask
Among the buried treasures unearthed at the complex in 2018, archaeologists found a silver face mask gilded with gold and eyes made from calcite, obsidian and black gemstone. Dr. Ramadan Badri said that the Mission conducted non-invasive testing, called X-ray fluorescence, on the gilded silver mask, which was discovered on the face of the mummy of a priestess of the goddess Niut-shaes. The results revealed that the purity of the mask’s silver is 99.07%, higher than Sterling Silver at 92.5%” This gilded silver mask is the first in Egypt since 1939, and the third of such masks to ever be found in Egypt.
The silver facemask gilded with gold found on the face of the mummy. Credit: University of Tübingen, Ramadan B. Hussein
The Business of Death
Dr Hussein revealed that studies at the Mummification Workshop have led to new insights into the business of embalming.
"Mummification was essentially a business transaction between a person and an embalmer, in which the embalmer was a professional, a priest and a business person,” said Dr Hussein in a press statement. “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."
The National Geographic reports that Mummification Workshops probably once existed all over Egypt but may have been destroyed by looters and researchers eager to get to the tombs beneath. So the discovery of the well-preserved workshop in Saqqara shed new light on what was most likely a vast funeral industry.
“The evidence we uncovered shows the embalmers had very good business sense,” Dr Hussein told National Geographic. “They were very smart about providing alternatives.” So, for example, if a family couldn’t afford a gold or silver burial mask for their loved one, they may have been offered white plaster or gold foil instead.
National Geographic writes that new evidence unearthed at Saqqara reveals that the embalmers were “savvy entrepreneurs who offered burial packages for every budget”.
The Mission of the University of Tübingen will resume its full investigation of Dynasty 26 cemetery at Saqqara in the winter of 2020.
Top image: Archaeologists examine a mummy at the Mummification Workshop in Saqqara. Credit: Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.