A large cache of materials and artifacts connected with the embalming and mummification process used in ancient Egypt has been uncovered in a group of extraordinarily large burial wells at Abusir cemetery north of Saqqara near Cairo.
The burial wells have been discovered and excavated by the Czech Institute of Egyptology which has been investigating the area for over 60 years and has made countless invaluable discoveries over the years.
Abusir (or Abu Sir) is a huge necropolis dating from the Old Kingdom period of Egypt which includes pyramids, tombs, temples and mastabas. The latest finds are located in a ‘newer’ part of the complex, dating to the 26th Dynasty (664–525 BC) in the area designated Abusir West.
Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Mostafa Waziri described the location of the find as ‘a huge well measuring 5.3 x 5.3 meters at a depth of around 14 meters.’ Here the archaeologists found 370 large pottery vessels and in these were remains of materials used in the mummification process, according to a statement by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities .
One of the deep Abusir burial wells where the mummification process materials and containers were found. ( Egyptian Antiquities Authority )
Whilst predynastic mummies were ‘mummified’ naturally in the dry climate of the Egyptian deserts, the Egyptians soon began to embalm their dead in order to artificially mummify their corpses and secure passage into the afterlife. At this time the Egyptians believed that the soul or ‘ka’ would leave the body and rejoin it in the heavenly paradise of Osiris, god of the afterlife. If the body was not preserved, then it could not be reunited with its ka, and access to paradise would be forfeited.
Over the centuries, the mummification process and rituals associated with transference to the afterlife was perfected. Whether the brain was deemed important is uncertain, but what is known is that it was liquified using some gory process and removed from the skull. Other organs were certainly thought to be important and needed to be preserved. Interestingly, the heart was believed to be the organ responsible for thought, which perhaps diminished the perceived value of the brain.
All the organs were treated with salt or natron in order to preserve them. They were then placed in canopic jars to be buried alongside the body, although the heart was generally left inside the body.
Four such canopic jars have also been found in the recent discovery. These limestone canopic jars were empty at the time of being discovered but were inscribed with hieroglyphs containing the name of their owner – Wahe Ip Ra.
Canopic jars recently found at Abusir cemetery. ( Egyptian Antiquities Authority )
Abusir Tomb Inhabitants
Although the details of the owner of this tomb are fairly thin with only the name being known at present, other neighboring tombs have also been excavated over the years. One is the tomb of Menekhibnekau, general of the army, late Twenty-sixth – early Twenty-seventh Dynasty. Another contained the Tomb of Padihor, an acquaintance of the king. Another tomb was for Priest Iufaa, and another still was Udjahorresnet, overseer of the foreign mercenaries. So this area was not the reserve of royalty, but certainly people of some importance.
The Abusir site does contain 14 pyramids, which were of course for burials of royalty. These were constructed much earlier than the recently found tombs, from 5th dynasty (around 24th-25th centuries BC).
Pyramids of Nyuserre Ini and Neferirkare at Abusir. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The materials found in the jars are as yet undetermined. Many substances were included in the mixture to preserve the bodies, but primarily salt and natron, as mentioned. Also, herbs and flowers were used to disguise the smell of putrification in the earlier stages of decomposition. Further investigation of the content of the pots is planned in order to analyze exactly what it is.
Dr. Muhammad Mujahid, Deputy Director of the Czech Mission, confirmed that the archaeological excavations in the area will continue throughout 2022, while Miroslav Barta, head of the Czech mission, stated “The excavations were part of a long-term project aimed at uncovering antiquities dating back to an era when ancient Egyptian society was looking for new ways to preserve their unique Egyptian identity.”
Top image: Canopic jars recently found at the Abusir site. Source: Egyptian Antiquities Authority
By Gary Manners