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Ancient Egyptian undertakers were business savvy and offered discount packages to clients, reveals new finding

New evidence shows that ancient Egyptian priest-embalmers who played a big hand in mummification were in fact very business-minded people
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In 2018, a group of archaeologists unearthed an ancient Egyptian funeral parlor that lay beneath the sands of Saqqara, a necropolis (city of the dead) located on the banks of the Nile in Cairo.

Two years of extensive research have shed light on the once-bustling funeral industry of the primeval past as new evidence shows that priest-embalmers who played a big hand in mummification were in fact very business-minded people. 

The ancient Egyptians were staunch believers in the soul's journey to the afterlife after death. Hence their funerary rituals were elaborate, starting from mummification of the bodies to a funeral procession with dancers and mourners who joined in celebrating the life of the dead.

For years, Egyptologists have worked on uncovering inscriptions and artifacts dating back millennia, but this time, they dived headfirst into documenting their findings in the unearthed Saqqara burial workshop where mummies were made.

And while these workshops may have existed in necropolises over the land of the pharaohs, they were possibly overlooked by earlier archaeologists who mostly focused on excavating the richly decorated tombs underneath.

They weren't disappointed, however, as new discoveries gave them significant and detailed insight into the business that revolved around death in ancient Egypt. And one of the key facts in their discovery told them that priest-embalmers back in the day were very business savvy.

They offered an array of services when it came to mummifying the dead, such as, if one couldn't afford an ornate burial mask crafted with gold and silver, then they could opt for a cheaper white plaster mask embellished in gold foil.

The canopic jars that were used to store the organs of the dead were typically made of lustrous Egyptian alabaster, but the cheaper alternative was painted clay set.

Engraving by Pearson of a cadaver being embalmed (Getty Images)

"The evidence we uncovered shows the embalmers had very good business sense," says Ramadan Hussein, an Egyptologist from the University of Tübingen in Germany told National Geographic. "They were very smart about providing alternatives."

"We've been reading about this in the [ancient] texts," Hussein says, "but now we can really contextualize the business of death."

The discovery

The ancient funeral home in Saqqara was located beneath a hidden burial shaft. The tombs within the deep shafts reportedly date back to 600 BC and had been first been excavated in the 1800s, but had been neglected by Egyptologist who scoured for burials from older periods of Egyptian history.

Hussein and his team discovered a shaft that had been carved into the bedrock had to work through at least 42 tonnes of debris in order to access it. The shaft was located just three feet below where the earlier excavations had halted in 1899. 

"If you’re doing evisceration down there, you need air moving in to get rid of insects," said Hussein. "You want constant movement of air when you’re dealing with cadavers."

The shaft was 40 feet deep, and the bottom was roomy and had an airshaft that was a vital source of ventilation. Hussein and his team then figured that what they had stumbled upon was a site where bodies were prepared for burial and not a tomb.

In the rubble, they found broken pieces of pottery, as well as barrels of charcoal and ash. They also recovered bowls that contained traces of oils and resins used in embalming bodies before mummification and even a raised table-like a slab of rock, perfect to lay a body.

A wooden coffin from Egypt (Getty Images)

"Every single cup or bowl has the name of the substance it held, and the days of the embalming procedure it was used," Hussein explained. "Instructions are written directly on the objects."

Furthermore, the excavation of the funeral parlor led to the discovery of six nearby tombs that held at least 50 mummies. This provided in-depth detail of how the business provided services for different clientele based on their wealth status.

The rich were buried the deepest, with the intention that they would be closer to the underworld, and had more expensive trappings like limestone sarcophagus, silver, and gold face masks. The working class, on the contrary, was laid to rest in simple wooden coffins on the tomb's upper tier.

Among some of the important discoveries at the Saqqara site is the sarcophagus of a woman named Didibastet, who was buried with six canopic jars, unconventional to the traditional practice, which usually comprises four jars.

All the jars that went through a CT scan were revealed to contain human tissue, which added to the possibility that there existed a different kind of mummification that preserved extra organs, besides lungs, stomach, intestines and liver.

The radiologist from Hussein's team of archaeologists is now studying the additional jars to determine what organs were stored in it. 

Sacred Rites 

This discovery is a breakthrough for scholars who have been engaged in studying ancient Egyptian burial practices, offering an unprecedented look at the sacred funerary rites as well as the realities of mummification. "For the first time, we can talk about the archaeology of embalming," said Hussein. 

Mummy mask gilded in gold (Getty Images)

The Egyptian concept of the soul developed very early and it required for the preservation of the body on earth, in order for the soul to have a hope of eternal life. Embalming, in a way, was sacred as well as a medical procedure, and the process that went into it was a carefully devices ritual comprising prayers and certain rites.

Mummification ensured the dead's safe journey into the underworld, and the process took a full 70 days to complete. The bodies were dried out with salt, anointed with oils, wrapped in bands of linen with amulets and spells tucked in between the cloth, while their internal organs were carefully packed in canopic jars. The mummified body would then be laid in a tombed that was fully equipped with provisions for the afterlife. 

Profitable business

The families of the dead would offer ancient undertakers regular fees for the upkeep of the dead, according to papyrus documents found in Saqqara over a hundred years ago.

While these could be expensive, Hussein’s research found that embalmers extended discount packages to suit every family's budget. The evidence of this was found in the newly excavated funeral parlor. 

Hieroglyphics and images of ritualistic animals and objects adorn an Egyptian manuscript found amongst the swathing of a mummy. (Original Artwork: Engraved by J Chapman after Denon)

"Mummification was a business transaction between an individual and an embalmer in which the embalmer was a specialist, a priest and a businessman," Hussein told See News.

There was an entire class of priests who dedicated themselves to the aftercare of the spirits of the dead. Their job was to maintain the tombs and offer regular prayers in honor of the dearly departed. There were dozens of tombs wth some hundred mummies packed into each one.

"People had to bring weekly offerings to the dead to keep them alive," said Koen Donker van Heel, an Egyptologist at the University of Leiden to National Geographic. Donker van Heel spent years researching the legal contracts that priests signed with the families of the dead. "Dead people are money. That’s basically it."