Research and Perspectives

By LaRene Gaunt


More Valuable Than Gold

Scholars continue to gain understanding of early Egyptian Christianity from a 2,000-year-old mummy.

One rock near the floor of his latest excavation seemed out of place, so Brigham Young University professor Wilfred Griggs examined it more closely. It turned out to be the top of an opening that led to what every scholar excavating in Egypt dreams of—an undisturbed tomb nearly two thousand years old!

Scientists working on the dig in an ancient Egyptian cemetery were stunned by the archaeological richness of their find in February 1989. Inside the undisturbed tomb, in a carefully constructed wooden coffin, was a well-preserved mummy wearing a beautifully decorated gold death mask depicting traditional scenes from the Egyptian funerary world.

“This is, by every opinion I’ve been able to get, the finest preserved mummy from the late pre-Christian period of Egyptian history,” Professor Griggs, an Egyptologist, said of the discovery. “Nothing of this caliber from this late in Egyptian history has ever been found. For me, it has been the discovery of a lifetime. In terms of quality, beauty, and preservation, it is the greatest find since the discovery of King Tut nearly seventy years ago.”

Scientists also found one other mummy inside the tomb. X rays have determined that a small mummy found lying in the doorway was a four-year-old child with a few abnormalities in his pelvis and legs. Another mummy was found nearby in a second wooden coffin.

A Loving Daughter

Hugh Nibley, emeritus professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, translated the hieroglyphics on the end of the wooden coffin. “We know that this young woman was the ‘loving daughter’ of a high priest and that her mother was ‘a greatly beloved lady of the house,’” says Dr. Nibley. “And we know that the parents were still living at the time of the burial, which was during the seventh year of the reign of the king. This was a very important family; only an important family could bury a daughter amid such wealth and splendor. Although the name of the young woman was not written on the coffin, we know that she was twenty years old, and the hieroglyphics indicate that this ‘loving daughter’ was ‘sweet of disposition’ and ‘loved by everybody.’” This translation seems to be confirmed by the garlands of dried flowers that encircle the mummy, and the small sprig of flowers placed near her heart.

An Unplundered Tomb in a Plundered Area

The team is committed to careful and thorough research. Their work at the Seila pyramid has been carefully documented with photographs, drawings, and other notations. Among their significant finds in 1987 was a stela inscribed on the Seila pyramid identifying the builder as Snefru. Snefru was the founder of the Fourth Dynasty as well as the father of Cheops, builder of the great pyramid at Giza.

It was this commitment to thorough research that actually led them to the tomb of the gold mummy. “The general area where we found the unplundered tomb had in fact been plundered, so we didn’t really expect to find anything of great value,” says Professor Griggs. “But we decided to carefully search the entire area again ourselves so that we could be sure we hadn’t missed anything, and that’s how we found the tomb. It’s a testimony to being thorough.”

It took more than a full day to remove the mummy’s seven-foot coffin from the tomb. The scholars were able to move it only a quarter of an inch at a time because it was wedged so tightly in its space. Finally, after freeing the coffin from the tomb, the team took it to their field laboratory nearby. It required six men to lift the coffin. To prevent mistakes as a result of their excitement, the team waited two days before taking the lid off the coffin.

“When we took off the lid and saw the gold mummy,” says Dr. Griggs, “our reaction was one of reverence. We each quietly pulled up a box or a stool and sat around the open wooden coffin and just admired the mummy for about an hour. There wasn’t much talking because we were each emotionally caught up in the thrill of the moment. Every ten minutes or so, someone would quietly comment on something he or she had noticed about the mummy. We could sense the love, concern, care, hopes, and beliefs of those who had prepared the body. It was such a personal experience; none of us will ever forget it.”

A BYU Multi-Discipline Project

Wilfred Griggs is one of a number of scholars from BYU who are involved in this research. Working with Professor Griggs in the Egyptian excavation are the following BYU professors: Marvin C. J. Kuchar, a professor of clothing and textiles; Revell Phillips and Keith Rigby, both professors of geology; Paul Evans, Marek Kaliszewski, Donald Lee Robertson, Mark Rowe, Scott R. Woodward, James L. Farmer, all professors of molecular biology; Rex Reeve, professor of ancient scripture; and Hugh W. Nibley, professor emeritus of ancient scripture. Vince Wood, Douglas Wyler, and Lamont Carr, all three paleopathologists living in California, and George Homsey, an architect from California, are also working on the project.

“All of us who work on this project feel strongly that this is a team effort,” says Dr. Griggs. “In fact, that’s the aspect of our project that is most satisfying to me. We each contribute our expertise, and so we learn from one another as well as from the artifacts. As a result, we have a more complete, integrated understanding of what we find.”

Results from this team effort have already yielded important information. For example, pathology on the mummies has provided clues to ancient Egyptian disease, health, and diet, and a study of the dental condition of the mummies shows that periodontal disease was more common than cavities.

Research in other areas is just beginning but promises to provide significant new information. One of these areas is molecular biology. Scientists are now analyzing DNA and bone samples from the mummies.

The Find of a Lifetime

The importance of the researchers’ discovery is reflected by the care given to the mummy at the Cairo Museum. It is not yet on display, so it is being kept in a special restoration room on the second floor of the Museum.

“All of the museum’s finest mummies are on display along the corridor outside that special restoration room,” says Dr. Nibley. But he says the gold mummy “is the best one. The fact that she is the only mummy in this carefully guarded room with controlled temperature and humidity shows that the museum is taking great care with her. They know this to be a remarkable find.”

For several seasons, Professor Griggs has been excavating in this cemetery located near Seila, in the fertile Fayum area of Egypt, about ninety miles south of Cairo. The historical and cultural significance of such a find far outweighs its monetary and artistic value. Because the tomb had never been opened, it will tell researchers much more about Egyptian beliefs in the afterlife and religion than they could ever learn from a plundered tomb. The cemetery in which the tomb was unearthed was used for about a thousand years, beginning around 200 B.C.

As the team continues to excavate the remaining 275 unexcavated acres of this 300-acre cemetery, they hope it will be possible to document archaeologically the changing religious values toward Christianity. The discovery of this 2,000-year-old mummy is a big step toward that goal.

[photos] Top inset: The mummy’s death mask is decorated with symbols of eternal life. Bottom: Researchers inspect the coffin. (Photography by Marvin Kuchar.)

Secrets Woven in the Past

Discovery of the gold mummy has confirmed that there were two distinct types of burials at Fagelgamuse, near the Seila pyramid. According to Marvin Kuchar, chairman of the Department of Clothing and Textiles at Brigham Young University, the elaborate stone tombs in the hills of the cemetery, where the mummy was found, probably contained the bodies of royalty or nobility. Ordinary citizens—even from wealthy families—seem to have been buried in the sandy part of the cemetery, sometimes in mud-brick tombs or covered with branches, reeds, or woven palm mats.

The two groups of people were also buried in different kinds of fabric. According to Professor Kuchar, the mummies buried in the stone tombs were wrapped with the “traditional mummy wrap”: Pieces of old fabric, about 8 by 10 inches each, were layered over the body until the desired shape was achieved; then the body was wrapped in narrow strips of linen wound diagonally around the body. Some, like the gold mummy, were given a gold mask.

By contrast, some of the mummies found in the sandy areas of the cemetery were clothed simply in one or more new robes of brilliant colors and complex design. These long robes had sleeves that came to the elbow or wrist and fringe around the hemline.

Unlike the neutral-colored linen wrap on the mummies in the stone tombs, these robes were woven from a combination of linen and brightly dyed wools. Often, the colors in the robes were a sophisticated mix of green, purple, orange, and gold, as well as of yellow, blue, three shades of red, and several shades of brown. The colors have remained clear and intense for two thousand years.

“The colors remain bright for several reasons,” says Professor Kuchar. “The mummy was wrapped very tightly and buried, so it was free of oxygen, water, and light. Since the dyes themselves were quite stable, there would be no reason for the colors to fade.”

The robes these individuals were buried in have what seems to be symbolic designs woven in the fabric. Among the objects represented in the designs are pomegranates, cats, and the sun. The meaning of some of these symbols—for example, the lotus blossom—is known, but the meaning of others awaits further research.

Some of the robes also have a textured pattern woven into them. Quite common is the addition of three thick threads, evenly spaced, in the horizontal weave of the fabric to effect a slight ribbing.

“We are not sure what this three-corded pattern represents,” says Professor Kuchar, “but we know the Egyptians believed in three heavens; possibly this pattern is representative of those heavens.”

[photos] Two Egyptian burial coverings: brilliant colored robes of the common people (left), and traditional linen mummy wrap of royalty (above). Royalty were then buried in a coffin and tomb. (Photography by Marvin Kuchar.)