Flax yarn from wrappings
August 14, 2014

Rewriting The History Of Embalming And Mummification In Ancient Egypt

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Mummies have always seemed to be from the distant past, but until now, we really didn't know how far into the past that was. A new study, published in PLOS ONE, demonstrates that Egyptians started mummifying their dead about 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.

The findings are based on an 11-year study conducted by an international team of researchers from the University of York, Macquarie University and Oxford University. The team's discovery pushes back the origins of a central and vital aspect of Egyptian culture by over a millennium.

Previously, theories concerning ancient Egyptian mummification suggested that in the late Neolithic and Predynastic periods between 4,500 BC and 3,100 BC, the natural action of the hot, dry desert sand was used to desiccate bodies. Until now, evidence of the early use of resins in artificial mummification has been limited to isolated events that started in the Old Kingdom (approximately 2,200 BC) and became more apparent during the Middle Kingdom (2,000-1,600 BC).

The new study, however, has identified complex embalming agents in the linen wrappings from bodies found in securely provenanced tombs. These tombs are in one of the earliest recorded ancient Egyptian cemeteries (4,500 to 3,350 BC), located in Mostagedda, in the region of Upper Egypt. Biochemical analysis, using a combination of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption/pyrolysis, allowed the team to identify a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, a natural petroleum source, and a plant oil/animal fat in the funerary wrappings.

"For over a decade I have been intrigued by early and cryptic reports of the methods of wrapping bodies at the Neolithic cemeteries at Badari and Mostagedda," said Dr. Jana Jones of Macquarie University, Sydney.

"In 2002, I examined samples of funerary textiles from these sites that had been sent to various museums in the United Kingdom through the 1930s from Egypt. Microscopic analysis with my colleague Mr. Ron Oldfield revealed resins were likely to have been used, but I wasn't able to confirm my theories, or their full significance, without tapping into my York colleague's unique knowledge of ancient organic compounds."

The samples Dr. Jones examined were collected in the 1930s by Egyptologists and held at the British Museum, Sarah Griffiths of the Daily Mail Online reports.

"Such controversial inferences challenge traditional beliefs on the beginnings of mummification," said Dr. Jones. "They could only be proven conclusively through biochemical analysis, which Dr Buckley agreed to undertake after a number of aborted attempts by others. His knowledge includes many organic compounds present in an archaeological context, yet which are often not in the literature or mass spectra libraries."

The complex, processed recipe these embalming agents represent uses the same natural products, in nearly the same ratios, as those used some 3,000 years later, at the height of Pharaonic mummifications. According to the New Scientist, the mix of these ingredients would have made a poultice that repelled insects and preserved flesh.

Dr. Stephen Buckley, a Research Fellow at the University of York, who designed the experimental research and conducted the chemical analyses said, "The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localized soft-tissue preservation that they would have afforded lead us to conclude that these represent the very beginnings of experimentation that would evolve into the mummification practice of the Pharaonic period."

"Having previously led research on embalming agents employed in mummification during Egypt's Pharaonic period it was notable that the relative abundances of the constituents are typical of those used in mummification throughout much of ancient Egypt's 3000 year Pharaonic history. Moreover, these resinous recipes applied to the prehistoric linen wrapped bodies contained antibacterial agents, used in the same proportions employed by the Egyptian embalmers when their skill was at its peak, some 2500-3000 years later," he added.

Professor Thomas Higham confirmed the burial dating at the University of Oxford. He notes, "This work demonstrates the huge potential of material in museum collections to allow researchers to unearth new information about the archaeological past. Using modern scientific tools our work has helped to illuminate a key aspect of the early history of ancient Egypt."

"Our ground-breaking results show just what can be achieved through interdisciplinary collaboration between the sciences and the humanities," said Dr. Jones.

According to New Scientist reporter Anna Williams, John Taylor of the British Museum notes that the accomplished recipe could indicate that the origins of embalming are even farther back in the past.

Image 2 (below): Dr. Jana Jones examines funerary textiles. Credit: Chris Stacey.


Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt - by Geraldine Pinch