Today I am going to tell you about the Predynastic Gebelein Mummies, especially the Gebelein Man.
Where and When They Lived
These mummies were found in the area of Gebelein, which is near modern-day Naga el-Gherira. Gebelein means “two rocky hills” in Arabic and derives from the local landscape. Its ancient name was Inerti, which had the same meaning. There are over a dozen archeological sites that date from the Paleolithic to the Middle Ages. During the Predynastic era, Gebelein may have been the capital of one of the local governmental states. This site is very important because it may have played a role during the origins of the Pharaonic state.
These mummies were found in the Predynastic cemetery. These burials dated to the Naqada II culture, approximately 3400 B.C.E. This period is the second of three phases of the Naqada culture. Some distinguishing features of this period are an advancement in pottery decoration, early development in hieroglyphics, and increased trade with Mesopotamia and Asia.
The keeper of Egyptology at the British Museum, Wallis Budge, excavated the burials in 1896. While in Gebelein, he was approached by some residents who found the burials. After confirming that they were ancient burials, Budge began excavating the site. They discovered six bodies in shallow graves: two males, two females, and two of undetermined gender, all in the fetal position on their left sides. These were the first complete Predynastic bodies discovered. Unfortunately, the exact grave goods were not recorded, but at least one pot was found with one of the female bodies and some flints may have been discovered. Three of the bodies were found with remnants of reed matting, palm fiber, and animal skin. These bodies were mostly naturally mummified.
Predynastic bodies were usually buried naked and sometimes loosely wrapped by matting or animal skins. Natural mummification was actually quite easy for the Predynastic people, and most likely happened on accident. When a body is covered in the warm sand, the environmental conditions help evaporate or drain the water away from the body. This natural mummification may have led to the original Egyptian belief in an afterlife.
All five of the mummies were transferred to the British Museum in 1901. The Gebelein Man has been on display since 1901, but only one of the other mummies has ever been put on display. So let’s cover these first.
The Other Gebelein Mummies
EA32752 was a female mummy that has been exhibited three times. She was 5 feet (1.51 meters) tall and had long brown hair on her scalp. She had fractures to the skull and many other bone fractures that occurred after her death. She has been exhibited in Rome, Birmingham, and Japan.
At one point, she was called “Gingerella,” in regards to the Gebelein Man’s nickname, “Ginger.” Both of these nicknames are now not used because of a British Act of Parliament called the Human Tissue Act of 2004. This act allows for anonymous organ donation and requires licenses for those intending to publicly display human remains. “The policy outlines the principles governing the respectful and lawful holding, display, study, and care of human remains in the British Museum’s Collection” (British Museum website).
EA32753 was an adolescent, though the gender is uncertain. They were 4.9 feet (1.49 meters) tall and had a detached skull when discovered. There is some speculation that the head may have not belonged to the body. Although the person was on the younger side, their teeth were very worn. There were fractures in all ribs, left tibia, and right thigh bone. Finally, linen was used to pack the thorax and abdomen.
EA32754 was a male adult who was approximately 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) tall. He had healthy teeth, fractures on the 9th rib, the right femur, and a crack fracture left of the sciatic notch of his pelvis. He also had tufts of brown hair on the remains of his scalp.
EA32755 was an elderly person with an undetermined gender. They were 5 feet (1.52 meters) tall and was probably placed in a wicker basket and covered with animal skin. The body has decalcified bones which is consistent with senile osteoporosis. Although all the teeth were present, the caps were worn. They had many fractured ribs and the legs had been detached because of fractures from the mid-shaft of both thigh bones.
Finally, EA32756 was an adult male who was 5 feet (1.51 meters) tall. There were remnants of bandages at the neck, pelvis, and right ankle. The skull was detached, the ribs and left femur were fractured. One arm had been dislocated at the elbow joint, the left hand and both feet are detached.
The Gebelein Man
The Gebelein Man (EA32751) (formerly called Ginger) is currently displayed in the British Museum Egyptian Gallery and has been since 1901. He was the earliest mummified body to be seen by the public at the British Museum.
He was 5.3 feet (1.63 meters) tall and was most likely somewhere from 18-21 years old. All of his teeth are present and he has ginger-colored hair on his scalp. He has fractures to his ribs, right pubic ring, both thigh bones, shin and calf bones. Three shells are also present on the soft tissue just behind his left knee. Due to the high humidity of London, the skin on the back of the skull had begun to peel. Curators and conservators have glued the skin back with mixed success.
He is displayed in a reconstructed sand grave in the gallery. Although his grave goods were not recorded, the grave is reconstructed with different grave goods from the same period. Black-topped pottery, buff-colored pots, White Cross line ware, and Decorated ware are all featured. There are also slate cosmetic palettes, hard stone vessels, and flint knives.
(To be honest, I am a little upset that this “reconstruction” is not a proper reconstruction, as it takes multiple different items from different contexts and places them together.)
Check out this article (page 185-189) on the concept of sacredness with the Gebelein Man!
If you could believe it, the Gebelein Man and one of the female mummies (EA32752) may have been the some of the earliest humans to have tattoos! Dr. Renee Friedman used handheld infrared cameras to discover and examine tattoos on different Egyptian mummies. The tattoos have been mistaken for meaningless smudges. The female mummy had tattoos of a series of S shapes on her right arm. This design has known from contemporary pottery and likely depicts a set of ritual clappers.
The Gebelein Man had one tattoo. Two animal forms were found on his right shoulder. It may be a Barbary sheep, which is an animal with down-curving horns, and some sort of cattle figure. The tattoos were mostly made of soot and were probably made for show, which may imply that the Gebelein Man’s tattoos were badges of bravery. Interestingly tattoos in ancient Egypt were more likely found on females, so the tattoos on the Gebelein Man are very unique.
Check out Renee Friedman’s full article on the tattoos she found!
His Mysterious Death?
In 2012, the Gebelein Man left the British Museum for the first time to get x-rays and a CT scan at the Cromwell Hospital in West London. After receiving the scans, it was hypothesized that he may have actually been murdered!
There was a puncture under his left shoulder blade which damaged both the shoulder blade, the rib, and punctured a lung. The weapon is believed to be a copper or flint knife that was at least 12 cm long and 2 cm wide. He may have been taken by surprise, but it unclear how his other injuries were caused.
Check out this video for a virtual autopsy on the Gebelein Man!
British Museum – All photos of the mummies
Rémih (Wikimedia Commons) – Gebelein Hill
Renee Friedman – Infrared images of tattoos
https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/templesandtombs/8029.html – Map of Predynastic Sites
Julia Marie Chyla – Image of the Gebelein site (A location of Palaeolithic site)
British Museum Blog – X-ray of Gebelein Man