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Littell's Living Age/Volume 169/Issue 2184/An Egyptian City of the Dead

M. Maspero, the conservator of the Museum of Boulaq, has just sent an interesting account of some recent archæological discoveries he has lately made at Akhmim. The following is his account of the hidden life so strangely revealed in these lonely hills above the Nile. Never did a cemetery deserve the name of necropolis better than this of Akhmim; it is really a town, whose inhabitants are counted by thousands, each day adding to their numbers, without any sign of nearing the end after the labors of fifteen months. I have explored the hill over an extent of at least two miles in length, and everywhere I have found it covered with human remains. Not only is it intersected with pits and chambers, but all the natural fissures have been utilized to deposit corpses there. These pits are from forty-five to sixty feet deep, and have several floors, containing from eight to ten small chambers piled one above the other, to admit a dozen coffins. The first impression was that these were family vaults; but the titles and genealogies inscribed on the lids indicate almost as many different families as there are mummies, and the successive generations of the same race are disseminated over different quarters. The grottoes, in particular, have the appearance of common burial-grounds. The simple mummies, swathed but not coffined, are piled up in layers on the ground, like stacks of wood in a timber yard. Above these the cardboard mummies have been heaped up to the ceiling — all the objects belonging to them, such as stools, pillows, shoes, perfume-boxes, eye-salve vases, etc., are thrown pellmell in the thickness of the layers; and, to lose none of the space, the last coffins were thrust in between the ceiling and the accumulated mass, without any regard to their being damaged or not. The first mummies discovered were those of the Greek epoch, and I thought, in consequence, that the entire necropolis belonged to the period of the Lower Empire. But as the explorations continued, we encountered more and more ancient tombs; one of the sixth dynasty, several of the eighteenth, and even of the reign of the heretic kings. These latter had been violated from ancient times, and presented the appearance of a charnel-house. The inhabitants of Akhmim, like those of Thebes, made no scruple of dispossessing the mummies, and the extinct families, to gain possession of their tombs. Most of the chambers must have changed masters ten times before receiving their present occupants. To sum up, this was a cemetery of small people (lower classes), well-to-do citizens, priests of an inferior rank, and tradesmen. The heaping up of the bodies, and the small care with which these were treated, would not be easily explained, were it not that contemporary documents furnished us with the most precise information as to the manner in which the preservation and worship of the dead were regulated. Only the rich had the privilege of occupying a separate chamber, and of ensuring, by pious foundations, the prayers of a special priest; people of fortune, and belonging to the middle classes, intrusted the mummies of their defunct relatives to undertakers or contractors affiliated with the clergy, who stored the bodies in their premises, and for the payment of an annual rent, or a lump sum, undertook to look after their preservation, and celebrate the canonical ceremonies on the days appointed by the ecclesiastical law. ... Even the animals had their hypogea, mixed with those of human beings; here are hawks in hundreds in wooden boxes; there we find jackals piled up in holes. The truth is, Egypt is far from being exhausted; its soil contains enough to occupy twenty generations of workers, and what has come to light is as nothing.