Archaeology: New insights into ancient Egyptian embalming
February 2, 2023
Specific ancient Egyptian recipes for chemical mixtures used in embalming different human body parts are identified in a study published in Nature this week. The findings, based on analyses of an ancient embalming workshop in Egypt, advance our knowledge of the processes involved in ancient Egyptian mummification.
The mummification process in ancient Egypt was long, complex and involved the use of many different embalming substances. Our present-day knowledge of the embalming materials mainly comes from ancient literature and organic residue analyses of Egyptian mummies. Although previous analyses have successfully identified various substances used in embalming, the roles of various components during the process and the overall procedure have remained largely unclear.
Maxime Rageot, Philipp Stockhammer and colleagues analysed 31 ceramic vessels recovered from an embalming workshop at Saqqara, Egypt, that dates back to the 26th Dynasty of Egypt (664-525 BC). These vessels are inscribed with texts providing embalming instructions (such as “to put on his head” or “bandage/embalm with it”) and/or names of the embalming substances. The vessels also contain residues of embalming substances. Together, this information enabled the researchers to understand which chemicals were used during mummification and how they were mixed, named and applied. For example, the authors found three different mixtures (which included substances such as elemi resin, Pistacia tree resin, by-products of juniper or cypress and beeswax) that were specifically used for embalming the head, and other mixtures that were used for washing the body or softening the skin.
When comparing the mixtures identified through residue analysis with inscribed labels, the researchers found that the usual translation of the ancient Egyptian word antiu as ‘myrrh’ or ‘incense’ may sometimes be wrong, as in this workshop it did not represent a single substance but instead a mixture (of fragrant oils or tar with fat).
The authors also showed that many of the embalming substances came from outside Egypt: for instance, Pistacia and juniper products were probably imported from the Levant, and elemi resins may have been from rainforests in South or South-East Asia. This, the authors conclude, demonstrates the role of ancient Egyptian mummification in promoting long-distance trade with the Mediterranean and further afield.
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