The 18-month-old mummified infant was found with a tunic and jewelry, including bracelets around her arms. Photo by Professor Kerry Muhlestein/BYU.
PHILADELPHIA, Egypt, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- A team of archaeologists from Brigham Young University have nearly completed their excavation of an ancient Egyptian cemetery boasting more than a million mummies. Thirty years after researchers first began digging, scientists are still trying to make sense of their findings.
Last month, BYU researcher Kerry Muhlestein detailed his team's findings in a presentation before attendees at the Study of Egyptian Antiquities Scholars Colloquium, which took place in Toronto.
Over 30 years of excavation, researchers working alongside Muhlestein have unearthed mummies dating all the way from the 1st century to the 7th century. The majority of the buried hail from the period of history marked by the rule of the Roman or Byzantine Empire in Egypt.
Among the million-plus mummies are some unique finds, including a jewelry-adorned 18-month-old infant, as well as a seven-foot-tall mummy. A person of that length is extremely rare, Muhlestein told Live Science, given the generally poor nutrition of the population.
"We once found a male who was over seven feet tall who was far too tall to fit into the shaft, so they bent him in half and tossed him in," Muhlestein told the audience in Toronto.
While some basic mummification techniques were applied, most of the buried were naturally mummified by the arid climate. The cemetery, named Fag el-Gamous, literally "Way of the Water Buffalo," after a nearby road, is not populated by the wealthy; no coffins were used and bodies were mostly buried without a mass of worldly possessions.
"I don't think you would term what happens to these burials as true mummification," Muhlestein said. "If we want to use the term loosely, then they were mummified."
One of the enduring mysteries of the ongoing discovery is the question of where these people came from. Few villages are nearby, and those are either too small to account for the massive cemetery or already have their own burial sites.
Answers to this question and others may come eventually, as Muhlestein says there is plenty of science left to do.
"We have a large publishing backlog, [and] we're trying to catch up on making our colleagues and the public aware [of the finds]."
As the researchers continue their work, they will be racing against the clock to extract as much information as possible.
"Part of the reason for this concentration on excavating the cemetery is that it has been under the threat of agricultural incursion, meaning that the local farmers continue to expand their cultivable area, and the fields are coming close to overtaking the ancient cemetery," Muhlestein told KSL. "We have wanted to excavate there before the opportunity was lost."