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Mummies with gold tongues uncovered in Lower Egypt

A new archaeological discovery in the ancient cemetery of Quesna in Menoufia governorate raises questions about the reasons for using gold foil in the mummification process, as well as the reuse of tombs in different eras.
This handout photo released by Egypt's official news agency MENA shows an Egyptian archaeological team opening the solid gold sarcophagus of Pharaoh Tutankhamun to run the mummy under the computer tomography scanner, Luxor, Egypt, Jan. 5, 2005.

CAIRO — Egyptian archaeologists have recently discovered an extension of the archaeological cemetery in the ancient Quesna necropolis in Menoufia governorate, 45 miles north of Cairo, which contains several archaeological tombs where ancient mummies with golden tongues were found.

In a Facebook statement Nov. 24, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said the discovery was made by the archaeological mission of the Supreme Council of Antiquities working in the Quesna necropolis. 

Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, was quoted in the ministry statement as saying that the mission found a number of golden chips in the form of human tongues in the mouths of some of the mummies discovered inside the cemetery. But, he noted, these chips were found in a poor state of preservation.

Some tombs also contained skeletons and mummies whose bones were glazed in gold, and were placed under linen wraps, according to Waziri. He said that glues and tar were used in the embalming process. 

He noted that remains of wooden coffins in human form and a number of copper nails used in those coffins were also found during the excavation works. 

The mission also discovered golden scarabs and lotus flowers, funerary amulets, stone scarabs and pottery vessels that were used in the mummification process, he added. 

The ministry statement also cited Ayman Ashmawy, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Sector at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who explained that the cemetery recently uncovered in the Quesna necropolis is characterized by a unique architectural style as it was built with mud bricks and consists of a burial well on the western side. On both sides, there are two rooms. The main vault extends from north to south. It has three burial chambers with vaulted ceilings connecting the east side to the west side, he said. 

Ashmawy continued, “The excavation work inside the necropolis revealed that the cemetery was used during three different time periods. The antiquities and artifacts that were found inside and the burial customs differed with each level of burial. The cemetery was likely used during the Late and Ptolemaic periods as well as over two periods in the Roman era.”

Hussein Abdel Basir, director of the Antiquities Museum of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, told Al-Monitor that the discovery is very important as there have been no significant archaeological discoveries in Lower Egypt and the Delta that document life in ancient times.

Abdel Basir said that the use of tombs in different eras was common in ancient Egypt, especially in the Late Period and the Greco-Roman era, because of lack of space and the transformation of some places into sacred locations with time.

Abd al-Rahim Rihan, member of the History and Antiquities Committee of the Supreme Council of Culture, concurred. He told Al-Monitor that the reuse of tombs during different time periods was for economic reasons and cost control, especially with the collapse of the influence of the Old Kingdom.

The site of the Quesna necropolis is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Delta, as it is located in the Kfour el-Raml area of the Quesna Center in Menoufia governorate.

Previous excavation works at the necropolis had uncovered a number of tombs and ancient sites where stone coffins in human form were found as well as a massive sarcophagus of black granite for one of the most important priests in the ancient city of Athribis, the capital of the tenth Lower Egyptian nome.

The historical and archaeological value of the Quesna necropolis is anchored in the diversity of burial methods as well as the presence of a rare burial ground for sacred birds. Architectural units made of mud brick tombs from the Late Period and the Greek and Roman eras are also found in Quesna.

The recent discovery brings more evidence of the nature of life in Lower Egypt during those eras, which have few discoveries, according to Rihan.

Rihan said that excavation sites in Lower Egypt are located in populated and agricultural areas, so it is difficult to regularly carry out excavation works there. In addition, he noted, the areas were flooded by the Nile floods and the Delta was covered with silt over time.

Bassam al-Shamaa, member of the Egyptian Society for Historical Studies, told Al-Monitor that the recent discovery highlights the nature of the ancient Egyptians' relationship with gold, which explains why they placed golden flakes as tongues inside the mouths of mummies.

He said, “The ancient Egyptians were fascinated with gold as they realized that it does not rust and succeeded in molding it. The color of gold resembles that of the sun, which had religious and social significance for the ancient Egyptians. The Greeks, Ptolemies and Romans were in turn influenced by this discovery of the properties of gold.”

Regarding the use of gold in mummification, Shamaa explained, “Ancient Egyptians realized that the tongue was the first organ to decompose after mummification, as it is made of skin and cells, not bones. That's why they formed gold chips in the form of tongues and placed them in the mouth to be a substitute for the tongue to speak in the afterlife.”

This is not the first time that mummies with golden tongues have been discovered in Egypt. In late January 2021, an Egyptian-Dominican archaeological mission working in the ancient city of Taposiris Magna, west of Alexandria, found mummies with golden tongues dating back to the Greek and Roman eras.

Rihan said that the ancient Egyptians believed in resurrection and immortality, so jewelry would enable the deceased to speak to Osiris, the god of the deceased, in the afterlife.

He explained that the ancient Egyptians were the first to discover gold from quartz rocks as of the middle of the Stone Age, specifically during the era of the Naqada II civilization (3500-3200 B.C.). They had expertise in gold manufacture, which manifested in the 11-kilogram (24-pound) gold mask of King Tutankhamun and his sarcophagus, which weighs about 110.5 kilograms (244 pounds) of pure gold, he concluded.

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