for National Geographic News
Researchers studying Egyptian embalming practices have opened a window on the techniques and materials used in the ancient mummification process.
The Egyptians mummified their dead because they believed that a person needed his body in the afterlifeand the better-looking the better, so it was incumbent on the priests in charge of embalming to do a good job.
"We were interested in what you would have to know to mummify someone and keep them intact for thousands of years," said Richard Evershed.
Evershed and Stephen Buckley, organic chemists at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, studied 13 mummies dating from across a 2,300-year period, from roughly 1985 B.C. to A.D. 395.
They conclude that Egyptian embalmers had an incredibly sophisticated understanding of the natural materials they used.
"Mummification is all about inhibiting microbial growth and dehydration," said Evershed. "The Egyptians figured out that it's not enough to just take the guts out, cover the body with inorganic salt, and then pop the body in a tomb in that state.
"The tombs could be very humid and the body would rehydrate" without proper preparation, he said. "They knew that if the body was not treated, what they'd get would be a pile of dust."
Sarah Wisseman, director of ancient technologies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, agrees. "The study shows that Egyptian embalmers were experts, extremely familiar with the anti-bacterial properties of the materials, and may have something to teach us about preservation," she said.
The study, and a companion piece by Wisseman, were published in the October 25 issue of the journal Nature.
The Egyptians began mummifying their dead around 2600 B.C. Over the centuries, the practice evolved to include extremely elaborate rituals conducted by priests using chemically complex recipes for preserving the body.
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