The discovery made headlines around the world when it was first announced in July 2018: Archaeologists had unearthed an ancient Egyptian “funeral home” deep beneath the sands of Saqqara, a sprawling necropolis—city of the dead—located on the banks of the Nile less than 20 miles south of Cairo.
In the two years since, thorough analysis of the finds and new discoveries in a nearby shaft filled with tombs have yielded a trove of information about the business of death in ancient Egypt. For centuries, archaeology in the land of the pharaohs was focused on uncovering inscriptions and artifacts from royal tombs rather than the details of day-to-day life. Mummification workshops probably existed at necropolises all over Egypt, but many were overlooked by generations of excavators rushing to get to the tombs underneath.
Now, with the discoveries at Saqqara, that’s changing as the archaeological evidence for a vast funeral industry is unearthed and documented in detail for the first time.
The evidence we uncovered shows the embalmers had very good business sense,” says Ramadan Hussein, an Egyptologist based at the University of Tübingen in Germany. “They were very smart about providing alternatives.”
Couldn’t afford a deluxe burial mask crafted with gold and silver? You might be offered the “white plaster and gold foil” deal instead, Hussein says.
Not enough cash to store your innards in jars of lustrous Egyptian alabaster? How about a nice painted clay set instead?
“We’ve been reading about this in the [ancient] texts,” Hussein says, “but now we can really contextualize the business of death.”
An unexpected discovery
Hussein began working at Saqqara in 2016, searching for tombs dating to around 600 B.C. and hidden deep underground. The deep shafts had been largely ignored by earlier Egyptologists, who often focused on burials from older periods in Egyptian history. His team’s work is profiled in a new, four-part National Geographic series, Kingdom of the Mummies, which premiers in the U.S. Tuesday May 12. While probing an area last examined in the late 1800s, Hussein and his team discovered a shaft carved into the bedrock that was filled with sand and debris.