A cemetery containing more than a million mummified human bodies has been unearthed in central Egypt, according to archaeologists.
Scientists have already excavated more than 1,700 mummies, preserved by the hot dry desert in the Faiyum region of Egypt about 60 miles (96km) south of Cairo.
But those leading the work believe their could be up to a million similar bodies buried in shafts cut into the limestone rock that are at times up to 75ft (22.9 metres) deep.
It is thought that the mummies were buried around 1,500 years ago, between the 1st and 7th Century AD, when Egypt was controlled by the Roman and Byzantine Empire.
Unlike many famous mummified remains discovered in Egypt, these were found in mass graves and appear to be ordinary citizens rather than royalty or other important figures.
Yet scientists are baffled about where the huge numbers of mummies came from – the remains of a nearby village is too small to warrant such a large cemetery and the nearest town, named Philadelphia after King Ptolemy II Phiadelphus, has its own burial sites.
Archaeologists have also uncovered a bizarre range of mummies, including one man who is more than seven feet (213 cm) tall.
They have also discovered that the mummies appear to be clustered together by hair colour, with those with blond hair in one area and all of those with red hair in another.
Professor Kerry Muhlestein, project director of the excavation at Brigham Young University, in Utah, said: ‘The cemetery is densely populated. ‘In a square that is 5 x 5 meters across and usually just over 2 meters deep, we will typically find about 40 burials.
‘The cemetery is very large, and so far seems to maintain that kind of burial density throughout.
‘Thus the maths 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.’
Although the Fag el-Gamous necropolis, which is named after a nearby road that translates as ‘Way of the Buffalo’, was first discovered nearly 30 years ago, archaeologists are still trying to piece together what they have found there.
Annual excavations at the site, on the eastern edge of the Faiyum region, near the city of Silah, regularly unearth mummified remains and Professor Muhlestein presented the latest discoveries at the Scholars Colloquim at the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities last month.
Among the recent discoveries made last year were the mummified remains of a little girl aged around 18 months old, still with two bracelets on each arm.
Unlike royal Egyptian mummies, the people buried at Fag el-Gamous had few goods buried with them and were laid in the ground without coffins.
Their internal organs were also rarely removed, an important part of the mummification process, so it is the arid environment of the desert that is largely thought to have preserved the bodies.
However, with the latest discovery of the little girl, Professor Muhlestein said there appears to have also been some attempt by those who buried her to use the full mummification process.
Writing on the team’s Facebook page, which Professor Muhlestein only recently updated in an attempt to keep the discoveries secret, said: ‘This mummy was beautifully wrapped in a tunic and with other nice wrappings.
‘There was some evidence that they tried much of the full mummification process. The toes and toenails and brain and tongue were amazingly preserved.
‘We found a wonderful necklace and two bracelets on each arm. The jewellery makes us think it was a girl, but we cannot tell.
‘She was buried with great care as someone who obviously loved her very much did all they could to take care of this little girl in burial. Very sad.
‘But they succeeded, it was a beautiful burial. She had been buried with several other mummies, so we are interested in examining them.’
Another woman, with long blonde hair, was found buried among a group of other bodies that all had healthy sets of teeth.
Professor Muhlestein said: ‘Quite a few of our mummies had excellent teeth, something that is unusual.
‘One wonders if it is genetics that caused a group that may be related to each other to have better teeth than the norm.
‘Of course we don’t know that they are related just because they are buried near each other, but throughout the history of the world it is common for families to be buried near each other.
‘It seems likely, but we cannot assume.’
He added: ‘The cemetery is largely a Roman period cemetery, located in the Fayoum area of Egypt.
‘The burials are not in tombs, but rather in a field of sand. The people in the cemetery represent the common man.
‘They are the average people who are usually hard to learn about because they are not very visible in written sources.
‘They were poor, yet they put a tremendous amount of their resources into providing beautiful burials.’
With the cemetery stretching over 300 acres, Professor Muhlestein believes there are many more secrets to be uncovered in its burial shafts.
A small pyramid built nearby to the cemetery more than 4,500 years ago – two millennia before the cemetery was first used – may also hold some more clues as to what these people were doing here.
‘It’s hard to know where all these people were coming from,’ Professor Muhlestein told Live Science.
Much of the discoveries have yet to be properly published as the archaeologists have been reluctant to reveal the exact location of the cementery.
Professor Muhlestein described how one mummy was found folded in half in order to fit him into the burial shaft. He believes that the man, who was over 7ft tall (213cm) may have suffered from a medical condition caused by an excess of growth hormone, but said more research needs to be done to prove this.
He also believes that some of the clusters by hair colour may actually be due to people being buried in family groups and so are related.
He hopes that genetic testing may be possible to help show how some of the mummies were related to each other.
Together with the bodies, archaeologists have also discovered glass beads, linen, jewelry and even colourful children’s boots.
‘A lot of their wealth, as little as they had, was poured into these burials,’ said Professor Muhlestein.