She lay in a university storeroom for 150 years, a 2500-year-old Egyptian mummy disregarded as an old wooden coffin full of rubbish in a Sydney storeroom.

But last year, in what turned out to be a spine-tingling moment for Sydney University archaeologists, the sarcophagus was opened.

Despite the massive disruptions of tomb raids, transportation by animal-drawn cart, and eventual shipment (most likely on its head) to Australia, the female mummy was remarkably intact.

For various reasons the precious cargo had been largely ignored, while more glamorous mummies imported by 19th century archaeologist Sir Charles Nicholson were exhibited.


Sarcophagus NMR. 29 was believed to have been long ago relieved of any human remains, until last year, when Dr James Fraser decided to take a look.

When the lid of the sarcophagus was removed, Fraser, Sydney University Egyptologist Dr Connie Lord and their companions were speechless in amazement, he told

Inside the wooden coffin carved with faded hieroglyphics were a pair of feet, ankles and other skeleton parts of what might be an Egyptian priestess.

Their find now has the world of Egyptian archaeology buzzing.

Clues are pointing to the fact that the mummy, which has now been X-rayed and CT scanned, may actually be the priestess Mer-Neith-ites.

Long thought to be merely a "replacement mummy", stuffed into any Egyptian coffin for a quick sale in the 1800s, this mummy may be the real thing.

The feet of the 2500-year-old Egyptian mummy which lay in a Sydney store room for 150 years. Photo / ABC
The feet of the 2500-year-old Egyptian mummy which lay in a Sydney store room for 150 years. Photo / ABC

The sarcophagus is expensive cedarwood which, written in hieroglyphics, says that it belonged to Mer-Neith-ites, a priestess who worked in the temple of the goddess Sekhmet.

Sekhmet was the lion-headed or warrior goddess whose cult was so dominant she was sometimes called the daughter of the sun god Ra.


Mer-Neith-ites is believed to have lived during the "Late Period" of ancient Egypt. which ran from 525-362 BC.

Her remains are one of four mummies owned by the University of Sydney's Nicholson Museum.

The museum is named after Sir Charles Nicholson, one of the university's founders and original provosts, or chancellors.

Nicholson brought a thousand objects including the Egyptian pieces in London in the late 1850s, when Egyptology was all the rage and the rich indulged in mummy unwrapping parties.

He brought back three mummies, two of them covered in plaster which retained their colourful painted hieroglyphics.

The more expensive, but less colour-fast cedarwood had faded and its contents were deemed largely worthless.

It sat in a storeroom, and then an education room, unopened.

But acting on a hunch, the Nicholas Museum's newly appointed senior curator Fraser decided it was time to open up NMR. 29.

"We are about to start a really detailed project to scientifically investigate these remains in the coffin and ask a whole bunch of questions, but really, 'Who is inside the coffin?'" Fraser told the ABC's 7.30 Report.

The mummy was not whole and the remains had been heavily disturbed, but using laser scanning and 3D modelling, the priestess began to emerge from the dust.

Packed up, she was sent in a box over the Harbour Bridge to Macquarie Medical Imaging.

Radiologist Professor John Magnussen said despite the remains being disturbed, there were still enough clues to solve part of the mystery.

"It's older, and it's got some early degenerative changes and the sacrum is fused, so we know it's definitely an adult," he said.

Mer-Neith-ites was a priestess in the temple of the goddess Sekhmet. Photo / ABC
Mer-Neith-ites was a priestess in the temple of the goddess Sekhmet. Photo / ABC

The scan also revealed that the feet and ankle bones were largely intact.

Connie Lord hoped that the remains of the feet would also reveal toenails, which "are fantastic for radiocarbon dating".

Lord also discovered the remains of the type of resin poured into a mummy's skull after its brain was removed.

The resin cast is similar, she said, to one found inside the coffin of the world's most famous Egyptian mummy, Tutankhamun.

Known as the boy king, Tutankhamen's tomb was the most intact ever discovered, with its golden masks and funerary objects unearthed in 1922, sparking a craze for Egyptian antiquities.

The possible discovery of Mer-Neith-ites' remains is as thrilling for Sydney University's archaeology department.

Mummies do not get unwrapped in the modern era, because it's considered unethical to disturb human remains.

But this mummy's state allows the scientists to closely examine it.

"It could tell us so much," Lord said.

"It's just an incredible find, I don't remember anyone finding something like this.

"It would have to be incredibly rare."

Fraser said clues which are exciting his team into believing that the remains might just belong to the priestess began with removing the lid.

"You could see one or two beads," he said.

"Then a few dozen beads were scattered among the remains.

"Now we know there are seven thousand beads in the coffin.

"They almost certainly came from a beaded net laid across the mummy and are made from faience, a type of glass.

The Sydney university mummy had resin in its brain cavity like that found in the remains of Tutankhamun (whose gold death mask is pictured). Photo / AP
The Sydney university mummy had resin in its brain cavity like that found in the remains of Tutankhamun (whose gold death mask is pictured). Photo / AP

"The beads are in all sizes and shapes and were probably woven into a face mask.

"There are a couple of similar coffins from the same time period at Macquarie University.

"They indicate a high-class or quality burial.

"Mer-neith-ites would have come from a wealthy family who could afford this type of material, and the cedarwood for the coffin."

This also fits in with Mer-neith-ites' time frame.

She lived during the 26th Saite Dynasty, when the last flowering of native Egyptian rulers occurred not under Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian invasion or rule, and before Greece's Alexander the Great in 332BC sounded the death knell for ancient Egypt.

During the Saitic period, traditional funerary practices flourished.

It could take years to definitely identify if the remains are hers.

Fraser said a bioarchaeologist, who has worked at Pompeii, will lay out the bones.

Ultimately, they will be displayed with the Nicholson Museum's three other mummies, a boy, Horus, aged six or seven years old, a woman Meruah dating back to 1000BC and Padiashiakhet, a priest from the 25th dynasty.

A new museum is being built in the Sydney University grounds, and it will have a dedicated mummy room.

Who was Mer-Neith?

Mer-Neith-ites lived during the Late Period of Ancient Egypt, 525-362 BC, and specifically during the last try native Egyptian period, the Saite Dynasty.

During this period, mortuary rituals continued to be observed in more or less the same way they always had been, and the religious beliefs of Egypt were maintained.

Mer-Neith-ites may have been the daughter of priest Sema-taxi-irdisu.

Priests and priestesses were members of a special class responsible daily for honouring and caring for the gods in the temple.

The hierarchy in the priesthood began with the high priest, the only member who held the position full-time.

Among the hierarchy were lector priests, who wrote down religious texts and instructed clergy.

There is evidence of women serving in all positions in temple life, except for lector priest, which may have been a position passed from father to son.

High-ranking clergy carried out the two most important daily rituals.

"Lighting the Fire" involved gathering before dawn in a sacred room to light a brazier, marking the emergence of the sun god from the underworld overnight.

"Drawing the Bolt" entailed unlocking the room where the statue of a god was held.

The burial champber of King Tutankhamun, the world's most famous Egyptian mummy. Photo / AP
The burial champber of King Tutankhamun, the world's most famous Egyptian mummy. Photo / AP

Revered positions in the priesthood included the hour-priests, astronomers who kept the calendar and determined lucky and unlucky omens and dreams.

There were mortuary priests who conducted funeral services and were the embalmers who mummified the corpse and recited incantations while wrapping the mummy.

Anyone who worked in the temple complex performing duties to the gods — kitchen staff, janitors, porters, scribes — was a priest, although part-time.

They bathed several times a day to maintain purity and perform rituals.

During the late period and into the final centuries of Ancient Egypt's 3000 years, the priesthood became more powerful and corrupt, especially after they were exempted form paying taxes.

The offices of the priesthood, instead of being maintained in families and passed from priest or priestess to son or daughter, were bought and sold.