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Museum Researchers Shocked To Find Human Bones In An "Empty" Sarcophagus

The coffin undergoing CT scans. Credit: Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney

Last June, staff at a Sydney University museum experienced an event typically reserved for Hollywood B-movies: When they opened a 2,500-year-old coffin that had long been described as empty, they found human remains.

The researchers were surprised, to say the least.


"The room fell silent. I drew in a breath, and just hung in the moment," senior curator Dr Jamie Fraser told IFLScience.

Rather than a full mummy, the sarcophagus contained a hodgepodge of broken and scrambled bones. Given that ancient Egyptians were all about having all the body parts intact and accounted for, it was obvious that bad things had happened at some point after burial.

According to his article in the university’s Muse Magazine, Fraser and his fellow researchers believe the damage was inflicted by careless tomb robbers.


Mixed remains within the coffin. Credit: Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney

Before Fraser and his team opened the sarcophagus that fateful day, it had not been opened for 20 years.


Acquired by the founder of the university's Nicholson Museum 160 years ago, the plain-looking cedar-wood coffin went mostly ignored in the time since, due in part to being overshadowed by sarcophagi in the collection that housed complete mummies, and because of an entry in a 1950s logbook that listed it as empty.

Brief past assessments had noted that the sarcophagus bore faded hieroglyphics declaring its occupant to be a woman named Mer-Neith-it-es, a noblewoman and follower of the Temple of Sekhmet, and the cover was apparently carved in her likeness. Based on the evidence available, the artifact was dated to the 26th Egyptian Dynasty, roughly 664 to 535 BCE.

At some point, its contents were upgraded to “mixed debris” in the museum's database, though it's unclear why previous staff did not notice the bones.

"I wanted to take hi-res photos of any hieroglyphics that were painted on the underside of the coffin, which had never before been photographed. That meant raising the coffin on scaffolding. Before we arranged this, we wanted to double-check that the coffin was indeed 'empty'", Frasier said.


"When we lifted the lid, I only expected a few bandages and bones, and was astonished by what we saw."

Excited to know more about the long-overlooked remains, the team quickly launched an extensive investigation. Upon the project’s completion last week, the museum finally announced the discovery to the public.

A CT scan allowing better visualization of the contents of the Mer-Neith-it-es sarcophagus. Credit: Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney

Though a complete report of the findings – including radiocarbon dating – has not yet been released, Dr Fraser shared several highlights in his article.

CT scans of the coffin’s undisturbed contents identified a pair of still-mummified feet and ankles among the jumble of bandages, chunks of embalming resin, and colored ceramic beads also present. Features of these bones suggest that the individual was at least 30 years old when they died.


After reviewing the feet and the scattered bones, the team confirmed that the remains came from one individual, yet whether or not this person was Mer-Neith-it-es or someone else entirely – a common occurrence in looted sarcophagi – remains unknown.  

"The key question now is whether this person is Mer-Neith-it-es herself, for whom the coffin was made, or whether the body placed inside the coffin for re-use in later periods, or for ensemble sale by antiquity dealers in the 19th century," Fraser told IFLScience.

A cross-sectional CT scan in which the toes can clearly be seen. Credit: Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney


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