Dr Hussein takes us inside Kingdom Of The Mummies’ underground funeral complex

A place for the dead opens the door to the world of the living in ancient Egypt

National Geographic documentary series Kingdom Of The Mummies takes us inside the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, to explore the burials of the Saite Dynasty (664-525 BCE), including those at Saqqara (about an hour outside Cairo). There Egyptologist Dr Ramadan Hussein and his team have made a unique discovery: what appears to be an embalming workshop, located 12 metres underground as part of a funeral complex that includes burial shafts leading off to individual tombs, going as deep as 30 metres underground.

The series explores the lives of ancient Egyptians, through the examination of the mummified remains of 4 people inside previously sealed sarcophagi found within the funeral complex. Rather than fixating on the glorious, gilded remains of the pharaohs, it looks at the daily business of the funeral complex, and so at the lives of ordinary ancient Egyptians and what they wanted in life.

“What you will see in the documentary is not the stereotype that everyone thinks about archaeology. We keep asking questions: What have we discovered? Why does it look like this? What makes this different? And we bring in technology to answer all the questions we have. Archaeology in general is where the sciences and the humanities can intersect. We can bring the natural sciences and approaches to our work, and philosophy can be there, economics can be there, everything we talk about. So when we talk about mummification, it’s not just about the preservation of the body. It was a craft, but also a business that they had to make money off, and a ritual and a religious tradition,” says Dr Hussein. “We look at the cultural meaning of mummification, not just how they created the preserved body.”

The result is a show that feels fresh and fascinating. You might find yourself aching to ask Dr Hussein more and more questions, the more you learn. It’s utterly addictive, and a rare opportunity to have your guide to the ancient world offer you a dizzying look into the distant past. Luckily for us, Dr Hussein was willing to answer five questions that we had after seeing a couple of episodes.

1: How did you catch the bug?

Dr Hussein can pinpoint the exact moment that his fascination with ancient Egypt kicked in. “I am not exaggerating when I say it was from when I was nine years old because I remember, and even have photo documentation, of a school trip I took to Giza. We were poor, and it was difficult even to get the fees for the school trip, but somehow my mother managed. I remember getting out of the bus going up to the pyramids, walking with my other friends, and I felt like the great pyramid was coming toward me. I was completely astonished and I didn’t know what to think or do. I stopped moving for a moment just to get over this shock and when I started walking again, it happened again. It felt as if the great pyramid was walking towards me as well. It was at this moment that I was already hooked and I wanted to know more about this.

“The more I started reading in school and finding out in history classes about ancient Egypt in particular, the more I felt connected to the language, the people, to everything. I enjoyed it very much. I found some really good teachers while I was young at school. They were really dedicated to teaching me what I needed. One in particular kept telling me more about Egyptian history. Growing up, I thought I‘d be a tour guide. But that wasn’t quite right, I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to be telling people’s story. How I wanted to do archaeology is how I speak about it in this documentary.”

2: What was “office” life at Saqqara like?

“You have to think of the ancient Egyptians as normal people. Saqqara, this huge necropolis, people think of it as a city of the dead, but for me it was a city of the living. There were so many people working to construct tombs, to mummify bodies, and to bring people into Saqqara every single day. This was the cemetery for a huge metropolis, Memphis. There were crews of builders, crews of engravers carving inscriptions of the walls, crews painting scenes, making coffins, crews of ritualists – priests who performed daily rituals for tombs. There were a lot of administrators on the scene. Employees would come to work every day, and after that they would go home.

“Egyptians had their dreams and ambitions. They aspired, and some of them were making it up the social ladder. As Egyptologists, when we tell the stories of ancient Egypt, we always focus on the magnificent discoveries that we’re making and the shiny objects that we’ve found, but we’ve never really humanised the ancient Egyptians, and told their stories as people as human as you. I found it a good opportunity with this dig to talk about this,” says Dr Hussein. “And if I can talk about myself, the reason I was crying on camera (during the opening of one of the tombs) is I have come really, really far up the Egyptian social ladder myself.”

3: How did workers get in and out of the underground complex?

With the embalming room 12 metres underground and the burial shaft going down 30 metres, with no access other than stone shafts leading straight down, you might be wondering how working got in and out daily.

Dr Hussein answers happily, “We have pieces of pottery on which people actually drew that – how they get down these shafts! There are usually holes on the two opposite sides of the shaft and these sockets on the walls, we’d call them footholds. So they would have a rope to lower them down and they’d put their feet in the footholds on the side walls. But in this big shaft (the burial shaft), which is too wide, they placed the footholds in the corners (or two adjoining walls of the shaft). So they could use a rope and go down that way. I did a demo in front of everybody using a rope like the Egyptians used, and in modern times I also used a winch and those footholds to go up and down. This particular inscription was drawn by the workmen who built the tombs, and they show us how they go up and down a shaft.”

The workers also drew about how they’d get bodies and mummies down the shaft. “They show the mummified body in the coffin lowered down using rope into the shaft,” says Dr Hussein. “We’re very lucky because Egyptians, during their break time, would sit down and draw things and write things. Those are some of the most important documents that we have from ancient Egypt, because it’s a free representation and a free impression of what they did, outside of the decorum of how to paint a tomb and how to inscribe a funeral document. The material we get, we call them the ostraca. And ostracon is a small pot shard or a small stone with an inscription on it. They’re something we always look for because they give a great impression of the workmen.”

What might look like scraps or trash on a site can really get your mind working. “If you want to imagine the life of a priest who worked in this mummification complex, imagine them climbing down a shaft 30 metres deep. So who would be a priest? It’s somebody able bodied,” hints Dr Hussein.

4: How could a “funeral company” afford to dig 30 metres deep?

Through a wealth of papyri collected on site, Dr Hussein’s team literally “had the receipts”: the ancient documents describing a range of funeral plans details – down to the tiniest vial of oil – of what they would do for the dead, and how much it would cost the living. But digging down 30 metres is something you would literally have to sink money into. How could burials in a handful of tombs pay off that cost to the company? It becomes clearer, Dr Hussein explains, if you think of “heaven” as being underground.

“The builders knew where the soft rocks were and where the hard rocks were. They were always looking for the soft rocks to cut shafts into. There was always a demand for the deepest spot. Most of the shafts that we have that go deep, end at about 30 metres. There must have been a reason. In ancient Egypt, People who wanted to be close to Osiris, the God Of The Dead, would have to get to the deepest point of the shaft. So if you had tombs close to the god of the dead they could sell really well. People would be like, ‘Okay, I want to be buried right next to Osiris. So deep down is the place of Osiris. And it’s the rich people who can buy this place, who will be interested in buying it. The others will be very happy just to be close to Osiris.

“This is part of the business. Part of the business is what products they’d use for mummification? What you’d get would be according to the financial position of every person coming there. If you had a limited budget, you’d be hoping to get the essential requisites for your afterlife. If you’re poor, you might not get to spend the afterlife with the god Osiris, but you would get the minimum. In this particular complex, they served the whole community, poor and rich alike,” says Dr Hussein with a note of approval.

5: Where did the blood go?

One of Dr Hussein’s proudest discoveries is the underground body preparation room, including an evisceration table cut straight into the rock, complete with a channel that could have been used to drain fluids. “We knew about the process of mummification, but we didn’t have these structures before. This is something new, that the texts did not talk about,” he says. “Looking at this, there is a strong possibility now that mummification actually took place underground. The anatomy department at the University of Thebes asked me to give a lecture and I had to explain so many things. One of the things they were talking about is that if mummification is happening underground, everything about this room is a perfect environment for the process. If you have to deal with cadavers in Egypt out in the open, bodies rot very quickly. You need to go to a cool place.

“But if you go down 12 metres deep to carry out this process of evisceration, one thing they asked me is how they got fresh air underground. I had the answer! The Egyptians were very smart. They re-used a tunnel system underground which was built about 1600 years before. They dug a 12 metre shaft into these tunnels to use them as a ventilations system. There were air shafts off it that led into this room. Even now when you stand there, it is between 15-20 degrees cooler than above ground.”

And at this point, you might be wondering what happened to all the bodily fluids that had to be drained for mummification, because you can’t just drain them into the floor. “One of the things that was pretty fascinating for me is that channel that comes from the back of this table-like structure and then runs along the side of the room,” says Dr Hussein. “That is a drainage system. So if you have any fluids, the way you get rid of these is by pushing it towards a channel and then you drain it into a bigger container. For me, that was the biggest clue to how this room was used. It was used for evisceration.”

But this is not a matter of question answered and move on. The work continues. “One of the things that we are discussing right now is bodily fluids and what they meant in the religious ideology,” reveals Dr Hussein. “One of the texts that we have tells that during the evisceration process, the bodily fluids were taken out and the body was dehydrated. And then at some point, you want this body to come back to life. The reanimation of this body is going to need these vital bodily fluids to go back into the body. This can be done either by pouring water or milk or wine or giving part of these bodily fluids being poured right inside of the mummy along with recitations, rituals and ceremonies. And we think that maybe in this place, 12 metres deep, bodily fluids were not just being disposed of, or discarded as waste. Possibly they were being used in rituals to reanimate the mummy.”

Watch Kingdom Of The Mummies on Fridays on National Geographic (DStv 181) at 20:00 or on Catch Up

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