A non-destructive method for analyzing Ancient Egyptian embalming materials

December 16, 2020

Ancient Egyptian mummies have many tales to tell, but unlocking their secrets without destroying delicate remains is challenging. Now, researchers reporting in ACS' Analytical Chemistry have found a non-destructive way to analyze bitumen -- the compound that gives mummies their dark color -- in Ancient Egyptian embalming materials. The method provides clues to the bitumen's geographic origin and, in one experiment, revealed that a mummy in a French museum could have been partially restored, likely by collectors.

The embalming material used by Ancient Egyptians was a complex mixture of natural compounds such as sugar gum, beeswax, fats, coniferous resins and variable amounts of bitumen. Also known as asphalt or tar, bitumen is a black, highly viscous form of petroleum that arises primarily from fossilized algae and plants. Researchers have used various techniques to analyze Ancient Egyptian embalming materials, but they typically require preparation and separation steps that destroy the sample. Charles Dutoit, Didier Gourier and colleagues wondered if they could use a non-destructive technique called electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) to detect two components of bitumen formed during the decomposition of photosynthetic life: vanadyl porphyrins and carbonaceous radicals, which could provide information on the presence, origin and processing of bitumen in the embalming material.

The researchers obtained samples of black matter from an Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus (or coffin), two human mummies and four animal mummies (all from 744-30 B.C.), which they analyzed by EPR and compared to reference bitumen samples. The team discovered that the relative amounts of vanadyl compounds and carbonaceous radicals could differentiate between bitumen of marine origin (such as from the Dead Sea) and land-plant origin (from a tar pit). Also, they detected vanadyl compounds that likely formed from reactions between the vanadyl porphyrins and other embalming components. Intriguingly, the black matter taken from a human mummy acquired by a French museum in 1837 didn't contain any of these compounds, and it was very rich in bitumen. This mummy could have been partially restored with pure bitumen, probably by a private collector to fetch a higher price before the museum acquired it, the researchers say.
-end-
The authors acknowledge funding from Agence Nationale de la Recherche and the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France.

The abstract that accompanies this paper is available here.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. ACS' mission is to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people. The Society is a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its multiple research solutions, peer-reviewed journals, scientific conferences, eBooks and weekly news periodical Chemical & Engineering News. ACS journals are among the most cited, most trusted and most read within the scientific literature; however, ACS itself does not conduct chemical research. As a specialist in scientific information solutions (including SciFinder® and STN®), its CAS division powers global research, discovery and innovation. ACS' main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.  

To automatically receive news releases from the American Chemical Society, contact newsroom@acs.org.  

Follow us: Twitter | Facebook

American Chemical Society

Related Mummy Articles from Brightsurf:

A non-destructive method for analyzing Ancient Egyptian embalming materials
Ancient Egyptian mummies have many tales to tell, but unlocking their secrets without destroying delicate remains is challenging.

Under wraps: X-rays reveal 1,900-year-old mummy's secrets
Researchers used the powerful X-rays of the Advanced Photon Source to see the preserved remains of an ancient Egyptian girl without disturbing the linen wrappings.

Science reveals secrets of a mummy's portrait
How much information can you get from a speck of purple pigment, no bigger than the diameter of a hair, plucked from an Egyptian portrait that's nearly 2,000 years old?

A 400-year-old chamois will serve as a model for research on ice mummies
The chamois had been protected by the glacier for 400 years and only recently released due to the ice having receded.

Animal mummies unwrapped with hi-res 3D X-rays
Three mummified animals from ancient Egypt have been digitally unwrapped and dissected by researchers, using high-resolution 3D scans that give unprecedented detail about the animals' lives - and deaths - over 2000 years ago.

Ancient viral DNA suggests smallpox widespread in Viking Age Northern Europe
Viral DNA isolated from ancient human remains reveals the presence of smallpox in 7th century northern Europe, increasing the definitive antiquity of the disease in humans by nearly 1,000 years, according to a new study.

Engineering: 3D-printed vocal tract reproduces sound of ancient mummy
The sound produced by the vocal tract of a 3,000 year-old Egyptian mummy has been synthesized using CT scans, 3D printing and an electronic larynx.

Lifestyle is a threat to gut bacteria: Ötzi proves it
The evolution of dietary and hygienic habits in Western countries is associated with a decrease in the bacteria that help in digestion.

New virus found in one-third of all countries may have coevolved with human lineage
Published in Nature Microbiology, a new study has investigated the origin and evolution of a virus called crAssphage, which may have coevolved with human lineage.

CT technique expands possibilities of imaging ancient remains
Researchers in Sweden using computed tomography (CT) have successfully imaged the soft tissue of an ancient Egyptian mummy's hand down to a microscopic level, according to a new study.

Read More: Mummy News and Mummy 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.