Archaeologists working at a temple on the outskirts of the Egyptian city of Alexandria have found 16 human burial chambers, the government's ministry of tourism and antiquities announced.
At least one contained a human skull with a golden tongue nestled in its jawbone.
The tongue was made of gold foil, said the ministry, which added that it was meant to ensure that the deceased person would be able to "speak in the afterlife."
It was discovered at the temple of Taposiris Magna, which is on the southwestern outskirts of Alexandria, on Egypt's Mediterranean coast. Archaeologists found other golden artifacts, too, including a funeral mask with golden flakes arranged in the shape of a wreath and some gilded decorations depicting Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the dead.
During the time of the pharaohs, gold was often used to decorate the funereal masks of rulers like King Tutankhamen. It had also been molded to encase the fingers and toes of the dead.
"For the Egyptians, gold was a material that had qualities of everlastingness," said Jennifer Houser Wegner, a curator of Egyptian artifacts at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. "It never tarnished. It always shone brilliantly."
The Egyptian ministry of tourism and antiquities said the tongue was meant to help the deceased converse with Osiris on their way to the afterlife.
"Within an Egyptian funerary context, its reference is to Spell 158 of the Book of the Dead, which ensures that the deceased has the ability to breathe and speak, as well as to eat and drink, in the afterlife," said Lorelei H. Corcoran, director of the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the University of Memphis. "It may be conflated with the Greek funerary practice of placing a coin on or in the mouth of the deceased as payment for the ferryman, Charon, who transported the deceased across the River Styx to the Underworld."
The mummies at Taposiris Magna date to a period more than 2,000 years ago, when Egypt was ruled by Greek Macedonians and later Romans. The temple itself, according to the ministry, appears to have been built during the reign of King Ptolemy IV, a Macedonian king who ruled in the third century B.C.
Queen Cleopatra VII, who reigned for about two decades before her death in 30 B.C., was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty before the Romans took over, and coins depicting her face have also been found in the temple. But the burial site of the famous queen has not turned up there yet.
"The stated goal of the Egyptian-Dominican mission is to find the burial of Cleopatra at Taposiris Magna," Corcoran said. "Many scholars believe, however, that the burial place of Cleopatra was within a royal burial complex, perhaps associated with the palace district, now lost underwater in the Alexandria harbor."