Insight into mysteries of mummification

Insight into mysteries of mummification

Artist’s impression of mummification in ancient Egypt. © Nikola Nevenov

What substances were used in embalming, how were they used and where did they come from? These questions now shed light on research results from vessels discovered in an ancient Egyptian mummification workshop. Among other things, the scientists were able to decode the composition of preparations previously only known from written sources. It also shows that some substances came from astonishingly distant regions – evidence of early global networking.

As is well known, the many fascinating cultural achievements of the kingdom of the pharaohs also include an aspect with a certain scary factor: the ancient Egyptians turned their dead into mummies. On the basis of religious ideas, they tried to protect the body from the natural process of decay as best as possible. In addition, extremely effective substances and techniques were used, as documented by some mummies that have been surprisingly well preserved to this day.

The fascinating concept has long been the focus of research and so much is already known about the practice of embalming. But there are still many open questions. Because so far, the knowledge is mainly based on written records and illustrations as well as on investigations of mummies. In some cases, it therefore remained unclear to which substances certain designations in the texts refer. Among other things, the study by the international research team now provides new insights.

Labeled vessels from a mummification workshop

The results are based on a special discovery from 2016: At the ancient burial site of Saqqara, about 20 kilometers south of Cairo, archaeologists came across the remains of a mummification workshop. According to the findings, there were at the time of the 26th dynasty, in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. BC deceased prepared for the subsequent burial. What is special: the archaeologists discovered over a hundred vessels that once contained the substances used for embalming.

Labels describe the respective contents and some of the vessels even contain brief instructions for use. For example, you can read “use for your head” or “make your skin beautiful”. “Many of these embalming substances have been known to us by name since the ancient Egyptian script was deciphered,” says co-author Susanne Beck from the University of Tübingen. “But so far we have only been able to guess which substances are hidden behind a name,” says the excavation leader. The investigations of residues of the former contents in the containers could now provide insights into this question. To do this, the team subjected samples from 31 vessels to an analysis using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry technology, which can provide conclusions about the identity of chemical substances.

As the team reports, the results made it possible to reinterpret known texts on ancient Egyptian embalming. Because the comparison of the identified substances with the labeling of the vessels now clearly showed for the first time which substances were used for embalming certain parts of the body. For example, pistachio resin and castor oil were apparently used exclusively for treating the head, the results show.

Insightful analysis results

Another interesting finding also refutes a previous assumption, the researchers report: “For a long time, the substance called antiu by the ancient Egyptians was translated as myrrh or frankincense, but we have now been able to show that it is a specific mixture of very different ingredients “, says first author Maxime Rageot from the University of Tübingen. The researchers identified a mixture of cedar oil, juniper/cypress oil and animal fats in the vessel from Saqqara labeled “antiu”.

In addition to identification and use, the origin of the substances was also an interesting aspect of the study: “It was surprising to find that most of the substances used during embalming did not come from Egypt itself, but also from the Mediterranean region and even much further distant regions,” says senior author Philipp Stockhammer from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Because in addition to pistachio resin, cedar oil and bitumen – all presumably from the Levant – the researchers also found residues of the resins of the Dammar and Elemi trees. These are extremely exotic plants: While the resin of the Elemi tree came to Egypt from tropical Africa, the Dammar tree still only grows in tropical Southeast Asia.

This illustrates the enormous effort the ancient Egyptians made to obtain specific substances for embalming, the researchers say. “You also had to get large amounts of these exotic resins. Ultimately, Egyptian mummification probably played an important role in early global networking,” says Rageot.

The investigation of the vessels from the mummification workshop is now to continue: Stockhammer concludes: “Because of the numerous inscriptions on the vessels, it will now be possible in the future to further decode the previously misunderstood vocabulary of ancient Egyptian chemistry,” says the scientist.

Source: University of Tübingen, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, specialist article: Nature, doi: 10.1038/s41586-022-05663-4

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