Embalming study ‘rewrites’ key chapter in Egyptian history
Embalming study ‘rewrites’ key chapter in Egyptian history


Embalming study ‘rewrites’ key chapter in Egyptian history

Macquarie researchers have discovered new evidence to suggest that mummification started in ancient Egypt 1500 years earlier than previously thought.

Traditional theories on ancient Egyptian mummification suggest that in prehistory — the Late Neolithic and Predynastic periods between c. 4500 and 3100 B.C. — bodies were desiccated naturally through the action of the hot, dry desert sand.

Scientific evidence for the early use of resins in artificial mummification has, until now, been limited to isolated occurrences during the late Old Kingdom (c. 2200 BC), with their use becoming more common during the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000-1600 BC).

But the international team, comprising researchers from York, Macquarie and Oxford Universities found complex embalming agents in linen wrappings from bodies from one of the earliest recorded ancient Egyptian cemeteries at Mostagedda, in Upper Egypt.

“For over a decade I have been intrigued by early and cryptic reports of the methods of wrapping bodies at the Neolithic cemeteries at Badari and Mostagedda,” said Macquarie’s Dr Jana Jones.

“In 2002, I examined samples of funerary textiles from these sites that had been sent to various museums in the United Kingdom through the 1930s from Egypt.

“Microscopic analysis with my colleague Mr Ron Oldfield revealed resins were likely to have been used, but I wasn’t able to confirm my theories, or their full significance, without tapping into my York colleague’s (Dr Stephen Buckley) unique knowledge of ancient organic compounds.”

Groundbreaking results

Dr Buckley identified a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, a natural petroleum source, and a plant oil/animal fat in the funerary wrappings.

These embalming agents are similar to those employed at the zenith of Pharaonic mummification some 3000 years later.

“The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localised 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,” says Dr Buckley.

“Our ground-breaking results show just what can be achieved through interdisciplinary collaboration between the sciences and the humanities,” said Dr Jones.

Read more about Dr Jana Jones and her research.

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