Egyptian Cemetery May Hold Over One Million Mummies

The bodies are of ordinary people buried some 1,500 years ago when Egypt was ruled by the Roman and Byzantine empires.

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A grave in the cemetery with the mummified body of a child.
A grave in the cemetery with the mummified body of a child.Credit: Courtesy Kerry Muhlestein

American archaeologists are excavating a cemetery in Egypt that could contain over a million mummified bodies, according to the Live Science website.

The remains of more than 1,700 people have already been unearthed in the cemetery, which is known as Fag el-Gamous ("Way of the Water Buffalo") and is located about 96 kilometers (60 miles) south of Cairo in the Faiyum region. Judging by the density of the burials and the large size of the cemetery, the archaeologists believe that it could contain over a million bodies.

The mummies appear to be those of ordinary people, rather than dignitaries, who were buried around 1,500 years ago, when Egypt was controlled by the Roman and Byzantine empires. The people buried in the cemetery had few goods buried with them and were laid in the ground without coffins.

The bodies, which were naturally mummified by the hot and dry desert conditions, were buried in deep shafts cut into the limestone rock. The depth of some of the shafts exceeds 30 meters (75ft.)

The archeologists, who come from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, are baffled by the origin of all the bodies. A village that has been discovered nearby would have been too small to warrant such a large cemetery and the nearest town, named Philadelphia after King Ptolemy II Phiadelphus, has its own burial sites.

Bizarrely, the mummies appear to be clustered together by hair color, with those with blond hair in one area and those with red hair in another.

Among the recent discoveries made last year were the mummified remains of a little girl aged around 18 months old, still with two bracelets on each arm, and a woman with long blonde hair.

"Quite a few of our mummies had excellent teeth, something that is unusual," said project director Professor Kerry Muhlestein.

The excavation site is also home to the small Seila pyramid, which researchers believe may be the second or third true pyramid ever constructed. Muhlestein said it was constructed by Snerfu, the first king of the fourth dynasty who discovered how to build a true pyramid after his predecessors built step pyramids for generations.

Though the cemetery was first discovered some 30 years ago, excavation has been speeded-up due to encroachment by local farmers expanding their cultivable area.

The BYU team is currently creating a database with information about burials, burial goods and textiles like mummy wrappings. Researchers hope to conduct a demographic study to learn more about the lifespan of people in the area, including infant and child mortality rates.

Muhlestein said it can be hard to learn about the common man because they aren’t very visible in written sources, but findings from the cemetery can provide insight into what life was like.

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