Egyptian cemetery may contain one million graves from Roman and Byzantine eras

Egyptian cemetery may contain one million graves from Roman and Byzantine eras

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The announcement of a potentially huge gravesite in Egypt has led the world’s media to make claims that a million mummies have been discovered. Now, the entire archaeological project might be in jeopardy.

Last month, Kerry Muhlestein, an associate professor at Brigham Young University, gave a paper at the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities Scholars Colloquium in Toronto, Canada, where he outlined the research he and other archaeologists are doing at Fag el-Gamous, a site southwest of Cairo. Brigham Young University has been working on the site for 28 years, but have only dug a small portion of the site.

About a thousand individuals have so far been discovered, including one person who was about seven feet tall, and others who were blond and red-haired. They have been dated to between the first and seventh centuries AD, which covers the Roman and Byzantine eras of Egypt’s history.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the talk was that Muhlestein believes that only a small fraction of the cemetery has been unearthed, and that as many as one million bodies might be at this location. However, there are questions on where these people came from, as no large scale settlement exists near this site.

In a later statement, Muhlestein explains:

The cemetery is largely a Roman period cemetery, located in the Fayoum area of Egypt. The burials are not in tombs, but rather in a field of sand. The people in the cemetery represent the common man. They are the average people who are usually hard to learn about because they are not very visible in written sources. They were poor, yet they put a tremendous amount of their resources into providing beautiful burials. The cemetery is densely populated. In a square that is 5 x 5 meters across and usually just over 2 meters deep, we will typically find about 40 burials. The cemetery is very large, and so far seems to maintain that kind of burial density throughout. Thus the math suggests that there are over a million mummies in the cemetery, though we cannot be certain of this without further exploration and a thorough academic review process.

These bodies were preserved in sands they were buried in, although they were not encased in coffins or had undergone special preparation before burial. Muhlsestien commented “I don’t think you would term what happens to these burials as true mummification. If we want to use the term loosely, then they were mummified.”

However, the idea that these burials were of mummies has seemed to be taken up by media. Headlines include A Million Mummies Discovered in Egypt and Archeologists uncover 1 million mummies. These claims have upset Egyptian authorities who have now suspended the licenses allowing the Brigham Young University archaeological team to work at Fag el-Gamous.

The Luxor Times reports that Dr. Youssef Khalifa, an official with Egypt’s Ministry of State for Antiquities, explained, “What was published in the newspaper is not true. There are no million mummies, a mummy definition to begin with means a complete mummified body and there is only one mummy found at the site of Fag El Gamous in 1980 which is at the Egyptian museum since then… The mission violated the rules and regulations of the agreement with the Ministry of Antiquities concerning making press statements and that’s why the committee of the ancient Egypt department took the decision to stop their permission to work at the site after 28 years of working at the site and the last season finished last March.”

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