Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Working-class Stiffs Volume 54 Number 5, September/October 2001
by Mark Rose

The earliest evidence for mummification in Egypt has been found in a cemetery of working-class inhabitants at Hierakonpolis, the largest site of the Pre- and Protodynastic period (3800-3100 B.C.), 390 miles south of Cairo. One plundered and two intact burials, all of women and dating between 3600 and 3500 B.C., show clear evidence that the forearms, hands, and base of the head were padded with linen bundles and then wrapped in resin-soaked linen bandages. Although the bodies weren't fully wrapped like later mummies, they are 500 years earlier than the next known example of mummification, a wrapped arm from the tomb of the 1st Dynasty king Den (ca. 2980 B.C.) found wearing four bracelets (and now in the Cairo Museum).

Why the head and hands were padded and wrapped is not certain. Perhaps the intent was to keep the body intact, especially the hands and mouth which would be needed for eating food in the afterlife. Renee Friedman, Heagy Research Curator at the British Museum and co-director of the Hierakonpolis Expedition, who directs the working-class cemetery excavations, notes that the jaw and hand bones tend to separate from the rest of the skeleton as a body decomposes or if a grave is disturbed. "This is not any kind of ad-hoc treatment," she says. "This is very carefully thought out, and you have the finest linen against the body, which gets progressively coarser as it goes out."

Examination of one woman's remains revealed that her throat had been slit. The position of the cut marks on the first and second neck vertebrae suggests the head had been tilted back at an unnatural angle, indicating that the cutting took place after death and a certain amount of desiccation. In all, seven bodies, both men and women, have lacerations to the throat, resulting in decapitation in two cases. There may be a link between this and the myth of the god Osiris, who was killed and dismembered by his brother Set, but was later reassembled and mummified in order to be resurrected as Lord of the Underworld. The earliest of Egypt's funerary texts, the Pyramid Texts, includes an obscure passage that reads, "put your head back on your body, gather up your bones," which may refer to this ritual act. "Perhaps they're laying the bodies out to dry," says Friedman, "then ritually decapitating, re-assembling, and wrapping them up."

Of an estimated 2,000 burials in the cemetery, 170 have been investigated. Other finds include the oldest preserved beard (well trimmed); a unique sheepskin toupée used to cover a man's bald spot; and, in a woman's burial (3500 B.C.), the oldest proven use of the plant henna to dye gray hair a dark reddish brown and the earliest evidence of hair weaving, in which locks of human hair were knotted onto the natural hair to produce an elaborate beehive-like hairstyle.

* For more on the excavations at the site, see

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America