The mummified remains of a dignitary, possibly dating from more than 4,000 years ago, could rewrite the history of ancient Egyptian burial practices.
Recent work on a mummy excavated in 2019 suggests that ancient Egyptians living during the time of the Old Kingdom – between 2700BC and 2200BC – were already carrying out sophisticated burials.
This is 1,000 years earlier than previously known.
The discovery featured in a 2020 episode of National Geographic’s Lost Treasures of Egypt.
Dr Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and one of the primary researchers in the recent study, told The National that “circumstantial evidence” suggested the mummy dated from the Old Kingdom.
Evidence for the mummy's great age included hieroglyphs on the wall of the tomb.
These indicate that it was the final resting place of Khuwy, a high-ranking official of the Fifth dynasty – a 150-year period from the early 25th century BC until the mid 24th century BC – and a relative of the royal family.
Pottery and canopic jars – containers used during the mummification process to store parts of the body – found in the tomb also appeared to have been made in the Old Kingdom.
“If this is indeed the mummy of Khuwy, this will truly be a unique discovery that dramatically shifts our understanding of the history of the Old Kingdom,” said Dr Ikram.
The sarcophagus where the mummy was found was housed in an austere burial chamber separated from the main tomb by a wall. The chamber was severely damaged by ancient gravediggers.
The tomb complex, Dr Ikram said, features a layout that is characteristic of the architecture of royal pyramids built during the Fifth dynasty.
Despite the strong case suggesting that the mummy does indeed date back to the Old Kingdom, Dr Ikram and her colleagues are conducting further tests which will confirm whether the remains are indeed those of Khuwy.
One possibility is that another person could have been mummified and buried centuries later in a re-purposing of the tomb.
“I remain hesitant until we can conduct carbon-14 dating,” Dr Ikram said.
She said that everything about the discovery points to the funerary practices of much later dynasties.
Dr Ikram and her colleagues were astonished by the amount of resin used to preserve the body. Such generous use of resin is virtually unheard of in Old Kingdom burials, she said.
The quality of the linen used to wrap the body is uncharacteristic of Old Kingdom funerary practices, which she says were markedly less sophisticated than in later dynasties.
In later practices, organs were properly removed and more precise tools were used throughout the process.
“When I first saw the mummy, my first thought was it was from the Twenty-first Dynasty [1069BC to 945BC],” Dr Ikram said.
The findings may also expand experts’ understanding of international trade during the Fifth Dynasty, she added.
“The resin used to preserve the body would have been imported from the Near East, from Lebanon most likely.”
The existence of these materials in Egypt at the time would mean that trade with neighbouring empires was much more extensive than previously thought.
Dr Ikram said dating analysis would take six to eight months.
Her work on the mummy is due to feature on an upcoming series of Lost Treasures of Egypt that launches in November.