Researchers have made an intriguing discovery regarding the ancient Egyptian practice of mummification, shedding light on the intricate chemistry involved. In a recent study published in the journal Nature, an embalming workshop dating back around 2,500 years was unearthed, containing a collection of well-preserved pottery jars. Remarkably, these jars were inscribed with instructions such as “to wash” or “to put on his head.” By analyzing the chemical traces within the jars and comparing them to the inscriptions, researchers gained valuable insights into the mummification process.
The study provided a glimpse into the “recipes” employed by embalmers to effectively preserve bodies for thousands of years. Joann Fletcher, an archaeologist from the University of York who was not involved in the study, likened the findings to a time machine, as they allowed researchers to gain unprecedented understanding of the ancient embalmers’ practices.
The revealed recipes demonstrated the embalmers’ profound knowledge of the substances that aided in the preservation of the deceased. Moreover, these recipes incorporated materials sourced from distant regions, indicating that the ancient Egyptians went to great lengths to ensure the perfection of their mummification techniques.
The discovery of the workshop, located in the renowned burial grounds of Saqqara, was made in 2016 by Ramadan Hussein, one of the study authors who unfortunately passed away last year. The workshop consists of visible sections above the ground, while an underground shaft leads to an embalming room and burial chamber where the collection of jars was found.
According to Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at The American University in Cairo who was not involved in the study, the underground rooms served as the final phase of the mummification process. After the body was dehydrated using salts, which likely occurred above ground, the embalmers would bring the bodies to these chambers.
“This was the last phase of your transformation where the secret rites, the religious rites, were being performed,” Ikram explained. “People would be chanting spells and hymns while you were being wrapped and resin was being anointed all over your body.”
While experts already had some knowledge regarding the substances used in these final steps, largely based on examining individual mummies and studying written texts, many gaps in understanding persisted, as mentioned by senior author Philipp Stockhammer, an archaeologist at Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany.
One intriguing term frequently found in Egyptian texts was “antiu,” which lacked a direct translation, as noted by Stockhammer. However, the recent study shed light on this enigmatic term by revealing that several jars labeled as “antiu” contained a combination of various substances, including animal fat, cedar oil, and juniper resin.
These substances, along with others discovered in the jars, possessed crucial properties that aided in the preservation of the mummies, explained Maxime Rageot, the lead author of the study from the University of Tubingen in Germany. Plant oils, for instance, served to protect the liver and treat the bandages, acting as a deterrent against bacteria and fungi while improving the overall scent. Additionally, harder materials like beeswax, applied to the stomach and skin, helped repel water and seal the pores.
It is noteworthy that some of the substances identified originated from distant regions, such as dammar and elemi, types of resin derived from the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. These findings indicate that the ancient Egyptians engaged in extensive trade networks to acquire the most effective materials for their mummification practices, reflecting both a global reach and significant chemical knowledge.
“The complexity of these findings is fascinating,” Stockhammer remarked. “On one hand, we see the existence of a vast global network, and on the other hand, we witness the depth of chemical knowledge possessed by the ancient Egyptians.”
According to Ikram, a crucial future endeavor for the research would involve analyzing different components of real mummies to determine if the same substances identified in the study are present. It is also important to note that these mummification recipes were likely not universal but rather evolved over time and varied across different workshops.
Nevertheless, this study serves as a foundation for comprehending the past and allows us to establish a closer connection with individuals who lived in ancient times, Ikram emphasized. Despite the vast temporal and spatial distance between us and the ancient Egyptians, there remains a profound connection.
“The ancient Egyptians may be separated from us by time and space, but we still share this bond,” Ikram stated. “Throughout history, human beings have always had a fear of death.”