Embalming jars with the heads of people and animals found in Abu Sir, Egypt. (photo by Petr Kosarek, Czech Institute of Egyptology/Charles University, Prague; all images courtesy Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)

Few human traditions have the same lasting mystique as Egyptian funerary rites. For centuries, researchers have amassed evidence of complex rituals and chambers richly appointed for the entombed to live their best afterlife, but a recent discovery is set to dwarf them all. This month, archaeologists in Egypt announced findings from a site near Cairo that includes the largest-ever trove of embalming materials to ever be uncovered.

As reported by Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the discovery was made by an archeology team from the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University in Prague while excavating a deep burial shaft in the ancient necropolis of Abu Sir. The burial shafts date from the 26th dynasty of ancient Egypt, the last to rule the country before the Persian conquest in 525 BCE, and the materials found interred in layers within the 14-meter (~46-foot) shaft date back some 2,500 years. These include 370 large clay urns containing traces of embalming materials used by priests to treat bodies as they were mummified and buried, the ministry told the National.

An assortment of canopic jars found at the bottom of the shaft.
The shaft where the embalming vessels were found at Abu Sir.

In addition to ash from a fire that burned near the mummification site, researchers have identified remnants of natron, a substance used to dry out dead bodies in preparation for interment, creating the classic preserved appearance of mummies. The discovery also included vessels with residues of resins, oils and myrrh as well as canopic jars. These jars are an important part of the mummification process, and would have contained a set of four organs, each protected by one of the Four Sons of Horus: Hapy (lungs), Imsety (liver), Duamutef (stomach), and Qebehsenuef (intestines).

“What we found were empty canopic jars, which had not yet been used,” Jiří Janák, a researcher from the Czech Institute of Egyptology, told Radio Prague International. “Interestingly, there were inscriptions on them including the name of the owner. That’s what helped us identify the person to whom this deposit belonged.” According to the hieroglyphs, the jars belonged to a man named Wahibre-Mery-Neith, son of Lady Irturu.

An embalming vessel in the shape of the hieroglyphic symbol for “heart,” used during an embalming ceremony.

“It is probably the largest complex and undisturbed find of its kind originating from ancient Egypt,” Mohamed Megahed, deputy head of the archaeological mission, told the Greek Reporter.

Abu Sir means “House of Osiris,” the ancient Egyptian god of the dead and resurrection, and the necropolis became a major center for the burial of Egyptian royalty during the Fifth Dynasty reign of King Userkaf. The site is a major source of archeological treasures from Egyptian history, but this new discovery is an outstanding find.

“Imagine an area that’s about two square kilometers (about 1.2 miles) in size,” archaeologist Veronika Dulíková told Radio Prague International. “We have an amazing concession here with enormous potential. We estimate that only around ten percent of the total area has been explored so far.” More excavations are planned over the course of the year.

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...