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Excavations at an ancient working class cemetery at Hierakonpolis (about 60 miles south of Luxor) may rewrite what Egyptologists once thought about mummification in Ancient Egypt.

It has long been thought that artificial (i.e., human-made) mummification in Egypt began with the early pharaohs. But artificial mummification seems to have begun much earlier, and it was not reserved for royalty at the start, according to Renee Friedman of the British Museum.

Background: In 1997, the mummies of three  women were uncovered at the cemetery. The women had been mummified deliberately, making them the earliest person-made mummies found so far in Egypt. But these women were not royalty; they were members of the working class. And the method of mummification was very unique: linen strips had been wrapped only around their heads and hands. Under the wrappings, one of the women had a fancy hair-do which had been colored with henna (to hide the gray) and woven with hair extensions (to fill out the thinning hair). And another had had her throat cut open (after death, as part of a ritual ceremony) perhaps as a symbolic enactment of the Osiris myth (in which Osiris was decapitated before reconnecting and coming back to life).

Not surprisingly, the wrapped portions of the bodies decayed much more than the unwrapped parts simply because the heat from the sand could not penetrate the wrappings and dry out the flesh; instead it decomposed. All three were also wrapped in reed mats, a common method of burial at the time.

What also interests Egyptologists is how well thought out the mummification technique was: the linen used to wrap their head and hands was layered with resin. The linen was also very finely woven on the inner layers of wrappings. Moreover, although 170 bodies have been excavated from the cemetery (which may hold as many as 2,000 bodies), no wrappings have been found in the grave of a man. Friedman wondered: Could these three women have been among the first mummies because they were weavers?


Other findings: The remains of a nicely trimmed beard from one man (which makes it the oldest preserved beard found in Egypt) and a sheepskin toupee from another (the first toupee discovered in Egypt) were also discovered in other graves.