An estimated 1,700 bodies have so far been unearthed at the Egyptian cemetery, Fag el-Gamous, which means “Way of the Water Buffalo”, roughly 60 miles south of Cairo. Experts believe that countless more remains are housed in the burial ground – one million at the very least – making the discovery that much more remarkable.
“We are fairly certain we have over a million burials within this cemetery. It’s large, and it’s dense,” said project director Kerry Muhlestein, an associate professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University (BYU), which has been excavating the location for around three decades.
The bodies were placed at the cemetery between the 1st and the 7th centuries AD, when the Roman or Byzantine Empire ruled Egypt. But the scale of the site has left many researchers confounded: A neighboring village has been considered too small to warrant such an enormous cemetery, while the closest major settlements had their own private burial grounds.
“It’s hard to know where all these people were coming from,” Professor Muhlestein told Live Science.
Unlike other famous Egyptian burial grounds, the Fag el-Gamous seems to not have been a burial ground for kings or royalty. Rather, ordinary citizens who were not buried in coffins have so far been found on the site, and according to Muhlestein, the common folk were “mummified” not by design, but by the arid natural environment.
“I don’t think you would term what happens to these burials as true mummification,” Muhlestein clarified. “If we want to use the term loosely, then they were mummified.”
He added, “The burials are not in tombs, but rather in a field of sand. The people in the cemetery represent the common man. They are the average people who are usually hard to learn about because they are not very visible in written sources. A lot of their wealth, or the little that they had, was poured into these burials.”
The findings also included corpses which appeared to be grouped together by hair color, with one section housing the remains of those with blonde hair and another for those with red hair, and a man of more than seven feet in height.
Muhlestein’s team discovered objects as well, including beautiful glassware, jewelry, linen, and even colorful shoes made for a child. The ancient relics were presented to the Scholars Colloquim at the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities in Toronto last month.
“A lot of their wealth, as little as they had, was poured into these burials,” Muhlestein said, adding, “It’s hard to know where all these people were coming from.”