Exactly 100 years ago, the tomb of Tutankhamun and his famous mummy was discovered. Since then, researchers have learned a lot about how ancient Egyptians prepared bodies for mummification. However, very little is still known about how they managed to make the bodies of the dead immortal by embalming them.
A team of researchers from the LMU University of Munich and the University of Tübingen (Germany), together with the National Research Center in Cairo (Egypt), analyzed the chemical residues of some vessels found in the mummification workshop of Saqqar — discovered in 2016 – and discovered new insights into the substances used to preserve human bodies.
In that workshop, specialists mummified the dead in the 7th and 6th centuries BC For Egyptologists, being able to retrieve countless vessels used so long ago by skilled artisans was a great opportunity to extract information. In addition, the containers were labeled with their contents and some even had instructions for use.
Until now, Egyptologists could only speculate about the meaning of these substances.
Until now, the names of some of the ingredients used to mummify were known because they were deciphered in ancient Egyptian writings. “But Egyptologists could only speculate about the meaning of these substances. Now we know, for the first time, what some terms like antiu mean,” Philipp Stockhammer, an archaeologist at LMU University and author of the study, told SINC.
Embalming workshop containers. / © Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, University of Tübingen, Germany. Photographer: M. Abdelghaffar
Reread the texts on mummification
For a long time this term was translated as myrrh or frankincense. “We showed that, in reality, it is a mixture of ingredients”, explains Maxime Rageot, archaeologist at the University of Tübingen and responsible for the analysis. The antiu used in Saqqara was a mixture of cedar oil, juniper and cypress oil and animal fats.
Therefore, these data facilitate the rereading of known texts about mummification in ancient Egypt. The findings were published in the journal Nature.
It’s amazing how they chose and mixed antimicrobial substances to achieve perfect skin preservation
“It’s amazing how they picked and blended antimicrobial substances to achieve perfect skin preservation,” says Stockhammer.
The analysis of the chemical residues in the containers, carried out by gas chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry, made it possible to isolate and identify the molecular remains of the substances that were used at the time.
Comparing these substances with the labels on the containers also made it possible, for the first time, to determine exactly which substances were used to embalm certain parts of the body.
“You can see how the mixtures were differentiated for different parts of the body. For example, pistachio resin and castor oil were used only for the head”, says the scientist.
Embalming scene with priest in underground chamber. / © Nikola Nevenov
A technique as an engine of globalization
Another of the big surprises the researchers had was that most of the mummifying substances did not come from Egypt itself. The archaeologist states that “many of them, such as cedar or juniper oil, came from the Mediterranean region”.
The discoveries led to the belief that “resins were traded over very long distances and that Egyptian mummification was somehow an engine for early globalization and global trade,” says the scientist, who funded the research with a grant. initial ERC.
It is possible that the ancient Egyptians used some other substance that no longer remains in vessels, as not all substances leave traces that we can identify.
They also found residues of damar gum (from Southeast Asia) and elemi resin (probably also from Southeast Asia and possibly tropical Africa). These two substances in particular show how commercial relations were already globalized almost 3,000 years ago.
While the resin of the elemi tree came to Egypt from tropical Africa or Southeast Asia, the damar tree continues to grow only in tropical Southeast Asia. Therefore, it is evident that great efforts were devoted to obtaining very specific chemical substances for the mummification process.
The German archaeologist recalls that “it is possible that the ancient Egyptians used some other substance of which there are no traces left in the vessels, because not all substances leave traces that we can identify”.
The scientists will try to analyze more of the workshop’s containers in the future and do some experimental embalming, for example with pigs, to better understand how the substances work.
Excavation area of the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, overlooking the Unas Pyramid and the Step Pyramid of Djoser. / © Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, University of Tübingen, Germany. Photographer: S. Beck
Rageot, M. et al. “Biomolecular analyzes allow new insights into ancient Egyptian embalming.” Nature