One Million Mummies? Egypt's Ministry Of Antiquities Begs To Differ

Anne Kennedy

Recent reports that a team of archaeologists from Utah's Brigham Young University have begun excavating an ancient cemetery containing one million mummies has Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities begging to differ. He's also threatening to stop the researchers from continuing their work, but not for the reason you might suspect.

The cemetery, Fag el-Gamous, and a second excavation site located at a nearby pyramid have been the subject of scrutiny for nearly 30 years, with some of the one million or so mummies dating back to the time when the Roman Empire ruled Egypt.

— Yahoo Singapore (@YahooSG) December 18, 2014

Why were one million people buried together? According to Live Science, the cemetery is one that seems to have been designated for lower-class Egyptians, and burials took place over the course of many years. It certainly wasn't a place where royalty was buried; instead of being interred in pyramids or sarcophagi, these decedents were simply buried in the sand, often with no grave goods and usually in winding sheets instead of coffins.

— kaveri (@ikaveri) December 17, 2014

How did researchers arrive at the figure of one million mummies?

In November, project Directory Kerry Muhlestein presented a paper at the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities Scholars Colloquium in Toronto, in which he said, "We are fairly certain we have over one million burials within this cemetery. It's large, and it's dense."

Muhlstein readily admitted to the scientific community that the people buried in the cemetery aren't mummies in the traditional sense. Instead, their remains were mummified by the hot, dry sand in which they were buried.

Even so, Dr. Youssef Khalifa, head of Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities, told the Luxor Times that stories circulated in Britain's Daily Mail about one million mummies belonging to ordinary citizens being interred in one place aren't true.

The heart of the dispute lies around the use of just one word: mummy.

"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."

— Clapway (@Clapway) December 19, 2014

Khalifa went on to describe the mummies as "only poor skeletons" and plenty of bones wrapped in textiles.

Muhlstein says that the term was being used loosely in describing the one million so-called mummies believed to be buried within the confines of the ancient cemetery, even telling Live Science that what happened during those burials wasn't true mummification.

"If we want to use the term loosely, then they were mummified."

Muhlstein also hopes to come to an understanding with the Ministry of Antiquities, telling the Luxor Times that he believes that what has happened surrounding the one million or so burials is a misunderstanding.

"I would like to work this out with the Ministry, for whom I have the greatest respect."

Dr. Khalifa isn't budging from his position, at least so far.

"What was published was clearly stating wrong information and I think the Permanent Committee will also approve our department's decision to stop the mission."

What do you think? Was the terminology "one million mummies" used to stir up excitement around the ongoing BYU Excavation project?

[Image courtesy of Jobs & Hire]