2,300-year-old Egyptian mummification workshops found at Saqqara

A painted human-shaped sarcophagus on a table under a tent.
A sarcophagus found in one of the tombs. (Image credit: Courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities)

Two ancient mummification workshops — one for humans and another for animals — have been discovered at Saqqara in Egypt. 

The workshops date back around 2,300 years and were in use between the late 30th dynasty and the early Ptolemaic period. During that time, Egypt lost its independence, first being conquered by the Persians and then by the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great. After Alexander's death in 323 B.C., one of his generals, Ptolemy I, took over Egypt, and his descendants ruled over the country for nearly three centuries. 

The human mummification workshop is made of mud brick and contains two beds that were used to embalm people, and the remains of tools and resin used in the embalming process were discovered inside, representatives from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities said in a statement.  

Artifacts found in the mummification workshops and tombs.  (Image credit: Courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities)

Meanwhile, the animal mummification workshop has a large number of pottery vessels and tools used for embalming. In Egypt, animals such as cats, dogs and birds associated with deities were routinely sacrificed and mummified for ancient Egyptian burials and rituals.

Some animal burials were found there, and the workshop may have been used to mummify animals associated with Bastet, an ancient Egyptian goddess who is depicted like a cat, according to the statement. 

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A 3 -foot-tall (1 meter) statue found within a niche in a nearby wall.  (Image credit: Courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities)

Near the workshops, archaeologists also uncovered two tombs that seem to have been constructed long before the workshops. One was built for a man who, according to the hieroglyph inscriptions, lived around 4,400 years ago and held many titles, including "director of the scribes," the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities said. The second tomb dates back around 3,400 years and was built for a priest. It's unclear what human remains, if any, were found in these two tombs. However, at least one sarcophagus was recovered. 

Also near the workshops, within a niche inside a wall, archaeologists found an approximately 3-foot-tall (1 meter) alabaster statue depicting a person, possibly someone in charge of overseeing burials in parts of the Saqqara region, according to the statement. 

A wall painting found in one of the nearby tombs.  (Image credit: Courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities)

Salima Ikram, an Egyptology professor at The American University in Cairo who was not involved with the excavation, said that the discovery is "a very exciting find" and noted that "it will help us to better understand the different steps of the mummification process, the materials and tools used, and maybe make comparisons between what was done to humans as opposed to animals." 

Few mummification workshops have been found in Egypt, Ikram said. Historical texts and archaeological finds suggest that there was "probably some degree of mass production" at the animal mummification workshops, whereas human mummification workshops likely worked at a slower pace, she said. Entire families appear to have worked as embalmers, and there were probably different prices for different levels of embalming. 

Zahi Hawass, a former minister of antiquities who was not involved with this work, agreed that it is a "very important discovery." He noted that in 2016, another human mummification workshop was found at Saqqara. That workshop, discovered by a team led by archaeologist Ramadan Badri Hussein, dates to the 26th dynasty (circa 688 B.C. to 525 B.C.). Hawass noted that the newly found human mummification workshop is larger than the one discovered in 2016. 

Archaeologists involved in the new discovery did not return requests for comment by the time of publication. 

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.