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Chemical Analysis Reveals Ancient Egyptian Mummy-Making Mixtures

Ancient Egyptians’ Mummy-Making Mixtures Revealed
Chemical Analysis Reveals Ancient Egyptian Mummy-Making Mixtures . Credit: Ермолаев / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The ancient Egyptians employed embalming procedures to preserve carcasses, and researchers have recently uncovered previously unknown data about these practices.

Analyses of chemical residue found within vessels from the only known Egyptian embalming factory and from the burial chambers in the surrounding areas, provided some leads.

Mummification professionals apparently had developed specialized combinations in order to embalm the skull, bathe the body, cure the liver and stomach, and produce cloths that swathed the body.

What Led to the Discovery?

The discoveries were made possible by the presence of chemical residue inside 31 vessels.  Four of the vessels were found in a pair of burial chambers located nearby, while the rest were discovered in an Egyptian embalming workshop.

The writing on the pots used in the workshop either described embalming ingredients or offered directions for the embalming process of the mummies (such as “to put on his head”).

All of the items date back to Egypt’s 26th dynasty, between 664 and 525 B.C. They were unearthed in 2016 in a cemetery site known as Saqqara. Ramadan Hussein, an archaeologist and co-author of the paper, was in charge of the endeavor but passed away in 2022.

Ancient Egyptian Embalming Mixture Materials

The word “antiu” was written on five of the vessels. Up until now, it was hypothesized that the material was the aromatic resin myrrh. In Saqqara though, antiu was a combination of animal fats and oil, or tar from cedar, juniper, or cypress trees. The labels on these bottles suggest that antiu was either administered alone or in conjunction with a compound called sefet.

Sefet, an unexplained oil researched more often, was labeled on three pots at the embalming workshop. In Saqqara, a perfumed fat ointment called sefet was often used. Two sefet vessels held a combination of animal fats and juniper or cypress tree oil or tar. Animal fats and elemi, a tropical plant fragrance, were stored in a third container.

Far Flung Trade Networks

Egyptologist Margaret Serpico of University College London notes that the majority of those compounds have already been discovered in previous investigations of chemical residues from Egyptian corpses and embalming vessels found in individual tombs.

However, elemi and dammar resins have never been connected to ancient Egyptian embalming procedures. These findings are “highly unexpected,” said Serpico, who was not involved in the current research.

Scientists also found that elemi resin originated in either Southeast Asia or Indonesia, whereas dammar traveled to Egypt from Southeast Asia.

Besides those from Southwest Asia, the other embalming compounds found in Saqqara came from the southern European and northern African regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.

These results show for the first time that embalmers in ancient Egypt used materials that traveled long distances.

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