Embalming study 'rewrites' key chapter in Egyptian history

August 13, 2014

Researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie and Oxford have discovered new evidence to suggest that the origins of mummification started in ancient Egypt 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.

The scientific findings of an 11-year study by a researcher in the Department of Archaeology at York, and York's BioArCh facility, and an Egyptologist from the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, push back the origins of a central and vital facet of ancient Egyptian culture by over a millennium.

Traditional theories on ancient Egyptian mummification suggest that in prehistory -- the Late Neolithic and Predynastic periods between c. 4500 and 3100 B.C. -- bodies were desiccated naturally through the action of the hot, dry desert sand.

Scientific evidence for the early use of resins in artificial mummification has, until now, been limited to isolated occurrences during the late Old Kingdom (c. 2200 BC). Their use became more apparent during the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000-1600 BC).

But the York, Macquarie and Oxford team identified the presence of complex embalming agents in linen wrappings from bodies in securely provenanced tombs in one of the earliest recorded ancient Egyptian cemeteries at Mostagedda, in the region of Upper Egypt.

"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."

Dr Jones initiated the research and led the study jointly with Dr Stephen Buckley, a Research Fellow at the University of York.

"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."

Corresponding author on the article, Dr Buckley, used a combination of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption/pyrolysis 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.

Predating the earliest scientific evidence by more than a millennium, these embalming agents constitute complex, processed recipes of the same natural products, in similar proportions, as those employed at the zenith of Pharaonic mummification some 3,000 years later.

Dr Buckley, who designed the experimental research and conducted the chemical analyses, said: "The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localised 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."

Dr Buckley added: "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."

Professor Thomas Higham, who was responsible for dating the burials at the University of Oxford, said: "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.
-end-


University of York

Related Ancient Egypt Articles from Brightsurf:

Water on ancient Mars
A meteorite that originated on Mars billions of years ago reveals details of ancient impact events on the red planet.

Who were the Canaanites? New insight from 73 ancient genomes
The people who lived in the area known as the Southern Levant -- which is now recognized as Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon, and parts of Syria -- during the Bronze Age (circa 3500-1150 BCE) are referred to in ancient biblical texts as the Canaanites.

Ancient Andes, analyzed
An international research team has conducted the first in-depth, wide-scale study of the genomic history of ancient civilizations in the central Andes mountains and coast before European contact.

The discovery of ancient Salmonella
Oldest reconstructed bacterial genomes link agriculture and herding with emergence of new disease.

The Lancet: Egypt, Algeria and South Africa estimated to be at highest risk of new coronavirus cases in Africa
Increased resources, surveillance, and capacity building should be urgently prioritised in African countries with moderate risk of importing cases of novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), as these countries are estimated to be ill-prepared to detect cases and limit transmission.

Ancient rhinos roamed the Yukon
Paleontologists have used modern tools to identify the origins of a few fragments of teeth found more than four decades ago by a schoolteacher in the Yukon.

Ancient civilizations were already messing up the planet
As issues like climate change, global warming, and renewable energy dominate the national conversation, it's easy to assume these topics are exclusive to the modern world.

Retracing ancient routes to Australia
New insights into how people first arrived in Australia have determined the likely routes travelled by Aboriginal people tens of thousands of years ago along with the sizes of groups required for the population to survive in harsh conditions.

Ancient enzymes the catalysts for new discoveries
University of Queensland-led research recreating 450 million-year-old enzymes has resulted in a biochemical engineering 'hack' which could lead to new drugs, flavours, fragrances and biofuels.

Extensive trade in fish between Egypt and Canaan already 3,500 years ago
Some 3,500 years ago, there was already a brisk trade in fish on the shores of the southeastern Mediterranean Sea.

Read More: Ancient Egypt News and Ancient Egypt Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.