Tale of a Million Mummies Unravels

Mummy
Conservators inspect a sarcophagus that contained the mummy of Nekhet-iset-aru before its installation at the National Museum in Singapore. Vivek Prakash/Reuters

There is battle over mummies taking place in Egypt, where one researcher claims he may have discovered a cemetery with a million mummified bodies.

Kerry Muhlestein, associate professor at Brigham Young University, recently presented his findings on an ancient Egyptian burial site, Fag el-Gamous, at the Study of Egyptian Antiquities Scholars Colloquium in Toronto. “We are fairly certain we have over a million burials within this cemetery. It’s large and it’s dense,” Muhlestein told Live Science. The vast majority of bodies Muhlestein discovered did not have their organs removed—mummification typically involves this measure—nor were they all buried with goods, as was common for wealthy Egyptians. Muhlestein believes the mummies are those of regular people.

Though Muhlestein’s team has not yet excavated the entire cemetery, it has determined that the mummies likely number around a million based on the density of a few smaller areas the team has investigated. “In a square that is 5 by 5 meters across and usually just over 2 meters deep, we will typically find about 40 burials," Muhlestein explained in an email to Newsweek. "The cemetery is very large and so far seems to maintain that kind of burial density throughout. Thus the math suggests that there are over a million mummies in the cemetery, though we cannot be certain of this without further exploration and a thorough academic review process.” He added that the findings are only preliminary. 

Dr. Youssef Khalifa, head of the ancient Egypt department at the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, says those findings are also impossible. The ministry first commented on the matter after seeing the story in the Daily Mail, calling it a “rumor.” Khalifa later told The Luxor Times, “What was published in the newspaper is not true. There are no million mummies; a mummy definition to begin with means a complete mummified body, and there is only one mummy found at the site of Fag el-Gamous in 1980, which is at the Egyptian museum since then.”

While circulating media reports have continued to quote the million mummies statistic, Khalifa said that “only poor skeletons were found and some thousands of bones remain.” Newsweek reached out to Muhlestein for clarification on whether the remains were truly mummified remains or just scattered bones, but he has not responded.

Meanwhile, the ministry has canceled Brigham Young University’s permission to work at the site after 28 years of research. In response, Muhlestein told The Luxor Times, “I believe there have been some misunderstandings. I would like to work this out with the ministry, for whom I have the greatest respect.”

To add further uncertainty to the million-mummy claim, there is only one village nearby, which Live Science notes “seems too small to warrant such a large cemetery.”

Thus far, some thousand of the bodies have been excavated.