Ancient Egypt: Mummy Remains Discovered Inside 'Empty' 2,500-year-old Coffin After 157 Years

A 2,500-year-old ancient Egyptian coffin—left untouched for 157 years—has been found to contain the remains of a mummy believed to be that of a prestigious high priestess.

The coffin was acquired by academics at the University of Sydney in 1860. Successive researchers assumed that grave robbers had stolen the mummy inside, leaving behind only tattered bandages and debris, the university's Muse magazine reported. As such, it remained untouched for over 150 years.

Thanks to a routine check in June 2017, however, university staff realized they had been sitting on a research gold mine. Lifting the lid and expecting to discover nothing but tattered cloth, "we were astonished by what we saw," recalled James Fraser, the senior curator at the university's Nicholson Museum. "Far from residual scraps, the coffin was filled with a miscellany of bones, bandages, beads and other materials."

"Imagine this coffin has been shaken like a cocktail shaker, and you can perhaps picture the jumble of remains inside," Fraser told Muse.

Ancient Egypt mummy
The 2,500-year old coffin lies at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia, on March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Colin Packham

"The coffin's torso and head are piled high with layers of bandages and chunks of resin that was poured over the mummy as a preserving agent; a leg bone lies against the coffin's shoulder, rib bones jut erratically from bandages, part of the jaw lies near the coffin's feet."

Though only 10% of the mummy is still in the coffin, Fraser said the remains—which have never been studied before—may help uncover mysteries of ancient Egyptian life. "We can start asking some intimate questions that those bones will hold around pathology, about diet, about diseases, about the lifestyle of that person—how they lived and died," he explained.

Hieroglyphs on the coffin say it contains a woman called Mer-Neith-it-es. Fraser and colleagues believe she was a distinguished high priestess in 600 BC, when Egypt was last ruled by native Egyptians.

Ancient Egyptian coffin
A 2,500-year old coffin that may contain a mummy lies at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Colin Packham

"We know from the hieroglyphs that Mer-Neith-it-es worked in the Temple of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess," Fraser said. "There are some clues in hieroglyphs and the way the mummification has been done and the style of the coffin that tell us about how this Temple of Sekhmet may have worked."

The damaged state of the remains may actually prove to be a benefit, as scientists generally do not perform tests on intact mummies. In this case, explained Fraser, "we can't do anything to the remains that the tomb raiders haven't already done."

Fraser now hopes that radiocarbon testing will prove that the person inside died around 600 BC. If so, it is likely "this person belongs to the coffin and, if it is a woman, it is likely Mer-Neith-it-es," he told the BBC.

"I've never excavated an Egyptian tomb, but this comes close," Fraser said.