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
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.
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.
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?
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.