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30 mummies discovered inside an ancient fire-scorched sacrificial structure

The tomb was discovered beneath a set of stairs.
The tomb was discovered beneath a set of stairs. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Milan)

Hidden within a fire-scorched structure near the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt, archaeologists discovered the entrance to a 2,000-year-old family tomb. Inside, they found 30 mummies of various ages, including several arthritis-ridden elderly people, as well as children and a newborn.

Though the archaeologists have yet to date the tomb, they suspect a single family buried their dead in it over generations spanning the the Ptolemaic and Roman periods (the first century B.C. to the second or third century A.D.), according to Patrizia Piacentini, a professor of Egyptology and Egyptian Archaeology at the University of Milan, who was co-director of the excavation.

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The entrance to the newly discovered tomb.

The entrance to the newly discovered tomb. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Milan)
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The newly discovered rectangular structure containing the tomb.

The newly discovered rectangular structure containing the tomb. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Milan)
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Researchers discovered this colorful cartonnage inside the coffin of a child.

Researchers discovered this colorful cartonnage inside the coffin of a child. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Milan)
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The archaeologists discovered a copper necklace with the inscription "Nikostratos" next to a mummy.

The archaeologists discovered a copper necklace with the inscription "Nikostratos" next to a mummy. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Milan)
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A broken offering table was among the finds.

The researchers found this broken offering table in front of the tomb. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Milan)
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A barbotine bowl was among the finds.

A barbotine bowl was among the finds. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Milan)
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A knife with an iron blade and wooden handle was among the finds, and the researchers think it may have been used by ancient robbers to cut the bandages of the mummies.

A knife with an iron blade and wooden handle was among the finds, and the researchers think it may have been used by ancient robbers to cut the bandages of the mummies. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Milan)
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The researchers used a portable x-ray machine at the site to analyze the mummified head of a child.

The researchers used a portable x-ray machine at the site to analyze the mummified head of a child. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Milan)
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One of the mummies discovered in a coffin inside the tomb.

One of the mummies discovered in a coffin inside the tomb. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Milan)
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A mummy with cartonnage covering the feet.

A mummy with cartonnage covering the feet. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Milan)

This new tomb is one of more than 300 recently discovered surrounding the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan, a pink granite structure built in the 20th century that sits on top of a slight hill along the Nile River. But while most of the other tombs were found underground or dug into rocky hills, this particular tomb was unique in that it was found inside a larger above-ground structure, which the researchers think was likely used as a place of sacrifice.

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"It seems that, due to its position along a valley of access to the necropolis, this building was used as a sacred enclosure where sacrifices were offered to the god Khnum in the form of aries, creator god and protector of the fertile floods of the Nile, particularly revered in Aswan," Piacentini told Live Science. "Who better than him could have propitiated the eternal life of those who rested in this necropolis?"

Further supporting its use as a place of sacrifice, Piacentini and the team discovered signs of fire on the structure walls possibly from offering ceremonies; but some of the fire marks may have also been made by grave robbers, she added. Either way, inside that burned structure, they discovered animal bones, plant remains and offering tables.

Also hidden inside was a mummy of a man next to a copper necklace engraved with his name "Nikostratos."

At the bottom of a staircase leading to the tomb entrance — which had been dug out of the rock —, they found a broken offering vase that still contained small fruits. The tomb, which was made up of four deeply-excavated chambers, contained the remains of around 30 mummies. 

Some of the mummies were very well preserved, such as the remains of a child tucked inside a terracotta sarcophagus, while others had their bandages and cartonnage, a material ancient Egyptians used to wrap mummies, cut by ancient robbers. The researchers also discovered a knife with an iron blade and wooden handle that may have been used by the plunderers. The researchers also say that Nikostratos was likely once inside the tomb with the other 30 mummies, but was taken out by the robbers. 

The excavation was a joint venture between the Aswan and Nibian Antiquities Zone in Egypt and by the University of Milan in Italy; the researchers are continuing to analyze and date the finds.

"The study of the new discovered structure is just beginning," Piacentini said. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.