Early Egyptians left no written record, but they had already figured out the science behind making artificial mummies. An 11-year study on the presence of embalming agents in ancient funerary wrappings push the origins of Egyptian mummification back by more than a millennium. The work was published in PLoS ONE this week.
Mummifying a body relies on three key steps: eviscerate, dry out the soft tissue, and apply anti-bacterial balms. Researchers studying prehistoric mummification as far back as the Late Neolithic and Predynastic periods (as long ago as 4500 BC) thought that the bodies naturally desiccated in the hot, dry desert sand; dehydrating the soft tissue prevents decay by bacteria. Resin mixed with oil and fat is an effective anti-bacterial balm, but evidence for resin-impregnated linen wasn’t apparent until the Middle Kingdom, between 2000 to 1600 BC. There had been, however, some isolated reports of resin use in funerary wrappings during the late Old Kingdom (2200 BC).
Over a decade ago, Jana Jones of Macquarie University examined museum samples of funerary textiles excavated from Neolithic cemeteries in the 1920s and 1930s and suspected that resins were likely used. But since that inference challenged long-held beliefs about the mummies’ beginnings, a thorough biochemical analysis was needed.
So Jones and an international team led by Stephen Buckley from the University of York examined linen wrappings from bodies in pit graves in the earliest recorded ancient Egyptian cemeteries — carbon dated to around 4500 to 3350 BC — at Mostagedda in the Badari region in Upper Egypt. Pictured to the right are two layers of textile from the Early Predynastic, Mostagedda, with the inner layer impregnated with embalming substances.
Using a combination of mass spectrometry to measure the mass of compounds and thermal desorption and pyrolysis to separate out the substances, the team analyzed the shiny, brown, “toffee-like” residues on textiles they suspected were used for embalming. They identified pine resin, aromatic plant extract, plant gum, natural petroleum (likely oil seep), and a mix of plant oil and animal fat in the 6,000-year-old funerary wrappings.
These complex embalming agents predate the earliest scientific evidence by 1,500 years. The resinous recipe is made with the same natural products — and in similar proportions — as those used during the peak of Pharaonic mummification some 3,000 years later. The only differences lay in the introduction or substitution of an ingredient, according to availability or to changing religious beliefs, Jones writes in the Conversation. Pictured below, flax yarn from wrappings heavily impregnated with resin.
“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,” Buckley explains in a news release. The analysis also showed that the balm was deliberately cooked, not just stirred together.
The pine resin from the early blend was traced back to southeastern Anatolia, in what’s now Turkey. That’s at least 1,000 kilometers away from the gravesites, Nature reports, suggesting how the region already had established and extensive trade networks.
Images: J. Jones et al., PLoS ONE 2014 (top), Ron Oldfield and Jana Jones via University of York (middle, bottom)