Ancient Goo Spills The Secrets

Ancient Goo Spills The Secrets of How The Egyptians Mummified Their Dead

An illustration depicting the ancient Egyptian process of embalming. (Nikola Nevenov)

An analysis of the residue on ceramics found in an ancient embalming workshop has given us new insights into how ancient Egyptians mummified their dead.

Even more astonishingly, a team of scientists has been able to link different substances to the specific parts of the body on which they were used.

This discovery is, in part, thanks to the residues themselves, which were studied using biomolecular techniques; but many of the vessels were intact, including not just the names of their contents, but instructions for their use.

“We have known the names of many of these embalming ingredients since ancient Egyptian writings were deciphered,” says archaeologist Susanne Beck of the University of Tübingen in Germany in a statement provided to the press.

“But until now, we could only guess at what substances were behind each name.”

The workshop was part of an entire burial complex in Saqqara, Egypt, that was discovered by a joint German-Egyptian team in 2018, dating back to the 26th or Saite Dynasty, between 664–525 BCE.

The grave goods recovered were spectacular, including mummies, canopic jars containing their organs, and ushabti figurines, to serve the dead in their afterlife.

Alabaster canopic jars recovered from Saite-Saqqara. (Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)

And there was the workshop, filled with ceramic jars, measuring cups, and bowls, neatly labeled according to their contents or use.

Led by archaeologist Maxime Rageot of the University of Tübingen, the researchers conducted a thorough examination of 31 of these vessels, using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to determine the ingredients of the embalming materials therein.

The detailed results are fascinating, and in some cases, completely unexpected.

“The substance labeled by the ancient Egyptians as antiu has long been translated as myrrh or frankincense. But we have now been able to show that it is actually a mixture of widely differing ingredients,” Rageot explains in the statement.

These ingredients were cedar oil, juniper or cypress oil, and animal fat, the team found, although the mixture may vary from place to place and time to time.

The team also compared instructions inscribed on some of the vessels to their contents to determine how each mixture was used. Instructions included “to put on his head”, “bandage or embalm with it”, and “to make his odor pleasant”.

Eight different vessels had instructions regarding the treatment of the deceased’s head; pistachio resin and castor oil were two ingredients that only appeared in these vessels, often in a mixture that contained other elements, such as elemi resin, plant oil, beeswax, and tree oils.

Some of the vessels found in the embalming workshop. (Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, University of Tübingen; M. Abdelghaffar)

Animal fat and Burseraceae resin were used to deal with the smell of the decomposing body, and animal fat and beeswax were used to treat the skin on the third day of treatment. Tree oils or tars, along with plant oil or animal fat, could be used to treat the bandages used to wrap the mummy, as found in eight more vessels.

Even more fascinating is what these mixtures can reveal about global trade at the time.

Pistachio, cedar oil, and bitumen were probably all sourced from the Levant on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

However, elemi and another resin called dammar come from much farther away: Elemi grows in both sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, but the tree that produces dammar only grows in Southeast Asia.

Therefore, it’s possible that these two resins traveled the same trade route to Egypt, the researchers note in their paper, suggesting that a great deal of effort went into sourcing the specific ingredients used for embalming. This possibly played a significant role in the establishment of global trade networks.

Meanwhile, the team’s work on the 121 bowls and cups recovered from the workshop will continue.

“Thanks to all the inscriptions on the vessels, we will in future be able to further decipher the vocabulary of ancient Egyptian chemistry that we did not sufficiently understand to date,” says archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany in the statement.

The excavation of the tomb complex was led by archaeologist Ramadan Hussein of the University of Tübingen, who sadly passed away last year, before the work could be completed.

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