Dr Jana Jones
Dr Jana Jones

Egyptian Mummification has Prehistoric Origins

This research has been shortlisted for the 2015 Times Higher Education International Collaboration Award.

Egyptian mummification has long been assumed to begin circa 2600 BC during the ‘Pyramid Age’ of the Old Kingdom. Prior to Dr Jana Jones’ research no evidence had been found indicating mummification techniques were in use during more ancient time periods. Between 2002 and 2009 Dr Jones used a suite of microscopical techniques to analyse linen bandages and search for the presence of embalming agents.

For over a decade Dr Jones had been intrigued by wrapped bodies at these Neolithic cemeteries and in 2002 she examined samples of funerary textiles from these burials that had been sent to Bolton Museum in the 1930s from Egypt. Microscopic analysis with her colleague Mr Ron Oldfield revealed what looked like ‘resinous’ substances, but Dr Jones was unable to confirm her theories, or their full significance, without tapping into Dr Stephen Buckley’s unique knowledge of ancient organic compounds.

It took 11 years of painstaking study but researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie and Oxford eventually discovered new evidence suggesting that the origins of mummification started in ancient Egypt much earlier than previously thought. The scientific findings published by Dr Jones, Dr Stephen Buckley of  the Department of Archaeology at York, and York’s BioArCh facility push back the origins of a central and vital facet of ancient Egyptian culture by over a millennium.

This international team discovered ‘resin’ in linen bandages circa 4500-3800 BC and these ‘resins’ provided evidence of mummification techniques. The linen bandages analysed came from the earliest documented Prehistoric burials at Badari and Mostagedda and pushed back the beginnings of mummification by more than 1,500 years.

Dr Stephen Buckley, archaeological chemist, was able to use biochemical analysis to identify the nature of these ‘resin’ compounds. These 6,000 year-old ‘resins’ were found to be complex, deliberately processed recipes that included rare ingredients with preservative, anti-bacterial properties. The ‘resin’ compositions were also markedly similar in their constituted proportions to ‘resins’ used during the height of Egyptian mummification some 3,000 years later.

This groundbreaking research has fed into Dr Jones’ current project exploring the origins and development of mummification. How did Egyptian mummification processes develop over 4,000 years to the point where they achieved perfect preservation? This research will greatly impact on current understandings of how, when and why Egyptian mummification practice evolved within the historical context of technological changes, regional influences and changing political and religious beliefs.