The discovery of a large cache of Graeco-Roman mummies in Bahariya Oasis has swept the media worldwide with a force not seen since the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. The Valley of the Golden Mummies at Bahariya Oasis is the final resting place for the most beautiful and re-markably well-preserved mummies ever found in Egypt. More than 200 mummies have already been uncovered. The mummies found exhibit a variety of shapes and styles: some of them are lavishly gilded from head to chest with an extravagance reminiscent of King Tot’s burial.
The site is about 6 square kilometers in size and probably contains a total of around 10.000 mummies. by far the largest number found in a single site anywhere in Egypt. It is likely that in Graeco-Roman times. people chose the area as their burial place because of its proxiinity to the Temple of Alexander the Great. It ap-pears that the cemetery was in use until the 4`1 century A.D.
As the first tomb was opened. the brilliance of gold shimmered in the sunlight among the piles of sand. Soon I was able to discern the figure of the mummy of a woman. about 1.55 meters in height. Her mask and waistcoat were coated with gold. the decoration of this waistcoat being divided into three equal sections marked by two circular disks representing breasts.
Each mummy is as distinctive as the individual it represents: no two are alike. Some are decorated with painted scenes on plain cartonnage; others are covered in gold. The one unitVing characteristic is that they are all smiling. In one corner lay a particularly touching pair: a woman lying beside her husband with her head lovingly turned toward him. It seems that the husband had died be-fore the wife. and she had asked her family to bitty her next to him, where she could gaze at him forever.
Each of the four tombs unearthed had a distinctive architectural style. Tomb 54 is cut into the sandstone and is composed of an entrance hall. a delivery room. and two burial chambers. The second tomb has an entrance and a single. large room cut into the rock that is full of mummies. The third tomb is a large shaft in the ground. with niches cut into its walls. The fourth tomb reflects the shape of the catacombs of Korn el-Shuqafa in Alexandria.
The mummies at Bahariya seem to fall into four general styles. About 60 mummies were found with a gilded mask covering the face and a gilded waistcoat decorated with scenes of gods and goddesses covering the chest. hence the name “Valley of the Golden Mummies. ” The second style of mummy is covered with cartonnage that depicts scenes of various gods like Anubis god of mummification, and the four sons of Horus. Also shown are Isis, Osiris, and Thoth, who were in charge of judgment of the deceased’s soul. The third type of mummy was not deco-rated with gold or cartonnage. hut. was placed inside an anthropoid or human-shaped, pottery coffin. The final type of mummy was covered entirely with linen. This kind of mummy is the most interesting be-cause it reminds us of mummies of the New Kingdom.
The decorative scenes on the mummies’ waistcoats often show an abbreviated form of the Judgment of the Dead. In these scenes, the god Osiris sits on his throne while the god Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased against the feather of Maat. Thoth looks on, records the results of the weighing process. and reports the results to Osiris.
The masks on these mummies do not represent the image of an individual, but rather they were stylized portraits. They are hardly the products of cheap mass production, however, because they, like the mummification process. probably cost the deceased’s family a significant amount. These masks should be considered the treasures of wealthy and influential people.
Many artifacts were found along with the mummies in the graves. Of particular interest were the statues of mourning women, their hands eternally upraised in a posture of excruciating grief for the loss of their loved ones. There was also an abundance of earrings, necklaces and amulets, and pottery with a variety of functions and styles from food trays to wine jugs. There were also many Ptolemaic coins, the most fascinating of which bore the image of Cleopatra VII. the famous ill-fated queen of Alexandria. Evidently, Roman Bahariya was a substantially affluent community. given that many of its members could afford burial extravagantly ornamented with gold and cartonnage. The main product of ancient Bahariya was wine made from dates or grapes. This wine was exported everywhere in the Nile valleys which ac-counts for the wealth of the residents of the oasis. The remains of an an-dent winery have been excavated near the Valley of the Mummies. The god governing wine and pleasure within the oasis was Bes4 and a large statue of him was discovered near the site of the mummies.
The Bahariya discoveries demonstrate that mummification reached Its peak during the Roman period. rather than declining as many have proposed. The most important point about the Roman approach to mummification at Bahariya is that bundles of reeds were placed on the tight and left sides of the mummy be-fore the body was wrapped in linen. This method made the mummy very strong and explains why more have survived from this period than from the Pharaonic era. By: Dr. Zahi Hawass