Two new studies of mummification practices in ancient Egypt indicate that corpse preservation techniques used in the region were even more complex than previously thought. The new analyzes show that the procedures depended on a global network of procurement of raw materials and carefully prepared recipes with antibacterial and antifungal properties.
The first work, which has just been published in the specialized journal Nature, is a collaboration between European and Egyptian scientists who investigated a “workshop” of specialists in mummification. The installation was discovered in 2016 in the town of Saqqara, 30 km from the Egyptian capital. Embalming took place there in the period of the 26th Dynasty (664 BC – 525 BC), a late phase in Egypt’s history as an independent kingdom.
The first author of the research, Maxime Rageot, from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (Germany), told in an online press conference that he was called to collaborate with the analysis of remains of products found in the “workshop” by the discoverer of the complex, Ramadan Hussein, who ended up dying before the study was published.
“I used to work with the identification of food remnants in ancient artifacts, but it was a proposal I couldn’t refuse, because I’ve always been interested in the technological and even economic aspects behind these practices”, explained Rageot.
Inside the facility, which had both aboveground and underground rooms where some bodies were buried, the team found jars and bowls, several of which were inscribed using words previously cited in the few Egyptian texts about the mummification process. Among these words are the term “antiu”, sometimes translated as “myrrh” or “incense”, two products that also appear in biblical texts about burials.
The chemical analysis conducted by the researchers, however, revealed a more complex scenario. Apparently, the most used products were mixtures of some animal fat with resins and oils from trees from the Mediterranean basin, such as cypresses, cedars of Lebanon and junipers (all belonging to the group of conifers, such as pines). There was no sign of myrrh or frankincense.
Everything indicates that the recipe for “antiu” was slightly different from that of another ointment mentioned in the texts and on the labels of the vessels, the “sefet”. On the ceramic vessels there is also an indication that certain products were specifically for use on the head of the dead, including pistachio resins (another plant from the Mediterranean). The team also found the use of beeswax and bitumen, a form of petroleum obtained in the Dead Sea region, between present-day Israel, Palestine and Jordan.
“Several of these products had properties that reduced the action of fungi and bacteria on the cadaver. Others sealed the pores of the skin and reduced humidity”, states Rageot.
Cypresses, pistachios, and junipers do not occur naturally in Egypt and were likely brought from regions such as present-day Lebanon and Syria. But what most surprised the researchers was the presence of products derived from plants such as elemi and dammar, which only exist in tropical forests —perhaps those of Africa itself or, more likely, according to the study, those of Southeast Asia, brought by the maritime trade with India.
“We see the practice of embalming giving a boost to this ancient globalization. The mix between global connections and chemical knowledge goes far beyond what was imagined in mummification practices”, summarizes another co-author of the study, Philipp Stockhammer.
In another study just published, the mummy of an adolescent from the Ptolemaic period (300 BC – 30 BC), when Egypt was under the rule of the family to which the celebrated Cleopatra belonged, was “virtually unwrapped” for the first time with the help of of computed tomography.
The researchers responsible for the analysis, belonging to the University of Cairo, discovered that dozens of amulets made with different materials accompanied the boy on his journey to the Beyond.
The so-called “Golden Boy”, estimated to be around 15 years old, was found in 1916, but it is only now possible to use non-invasive methods to analyze the embalmed corpse. The nickname is due to the gold-plated mask that covered his face.
In addition to wearing sandals and being covered with a garland of ferns, the boy carried at least 49 amulets on his body and in the folds of his bandages. Among them was an Eye of Horus (representing the falcon god of the same name), a tongue molded from gold leaf placed in its mouth, and a golden scarab within the chest cavity.
All objects were chosen to give protection to the dead youth and ensure that he passed the tests that, according to Egyptian belief, were faced by people after death. The study is in the specialized journal Frontiers in Medicine.
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