A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Forensic anthropologists with the Centre d'Études Alexandrines, directed by Jean-Yves Empereur, have recognized signs of mummification of the skeletal remains at the Gabbari necropolis in Alexandria, Egypt. The Hellenistic era (323-146 B.C.) necropolis was discovered during road construction in the western part of the city; so far, 42 collective burial chambers have been excavated (see "Diving on a Sunken City," March/April 1999). Numerous mummies have already been found at the site, but their state of conservation is poor; all that remains are bones and occasional vestiges of cloth so fragile that they turn to dust with a breath of air. The disappearance of body tissue and cloth could be a result of the late era and poor quality of embalming, but the more likely reason is Alexandria's humidity, which tends to destroy perishable matter.
Despite a close examination of the bones, the anthropologists have had trouble determining exactly how the embalming was performed. Preservation of the body by evisceration leaves few if any traces, and while embalming of the head leaves clear marks on the skull, they were missing on a majority of the mummies. The anthropologists observed a variety of mummification practices. In one tomb a child of around eight years of age was found lying on a small trapezoidal plank. Traces of cloth and reeds discovered near the abdomen suggest that the plank was integrated into a system for wrapping the body. For this type of conservation, the body is less well preserved and the length of conservation is shorter than with a more careful preparation. In certain cases the embalming is finer. One mummy was discovered in its bindings, upon which a lozenge pattern can still be discerned, and another which was clearly eviscerated and then covered, at least on the face, with gold leaf. The imprint of bodily features reveals that the leaf was applied directly on it. In Roman Egypt, applying gold leaf on the face or members of the mummified body was considered an effective method of preservation.
While observation of the bones, their conservation and position in the ground have shown that these fleshless bodies were once mummified and can be dated from context to the late Roman period, information about funeral practices is still scant, and it is unclear how widespread embalming was in the necropolis. Only further excavation, documentation, and analysis of the inhumations will provide the answers.