Study Unwraps Ancient "Recipe" for Mummies

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Mummification practices peaked from around 1570 to 1075 B.C. Tutankhamun and other famous mummies are from this period.

At the height of the art, embalming methods were so sophisticated that scientists today have been able to occasionally recover DNA samples from hair and tissues, said Wisseman.

By the Greco-Roman era of Egyptian history, 332 B.C. to A.D. 395, preservation of the body was not as important. More focus was given to making the mummified person more attractive through the use of paints and face masks, said Wisseman.

Knowledge of embalming practices can help in dating mummies, but it also gives archaeologists information about ancient trade routes, the rise and influence of embalming guilds, the availability of local versus exotic materials, and changing burial techniques.

Looking to Eternity

The embalming process in Egypt took 70 days and was performed by priests, who formed guilds. The embalming tents were located away from the city center because the smell of decaying human bodies was horrible, despite the use of fragrant herbs and spices.

Because the Egyptians had figured out that decay begins within the body, they removed many of the internal organs before covering the body with natron, a native Egyptian salt, said Evershed.

The natron, which was also put in packets and stuffed into the body cavities, dehydrated the body. When the body was completely dehydrated, it was wrapped.

The linen wrappings were treated with resins from fir and pine trees, beeswax, myrrh, palm wine, cassia, camphor oil, and other substances that had drying or anti-bacterial properties.

"The embalmers really had to have a tremendous amount of knowledge about the properties of these materials and their ability to prevent rehydration and inhibit microbial growth to truly protect the bodies over a long period of time," said Evershed.

The researchers analyzed embalming material by using a combination of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to examine extremely small samples—"less than 0.1 milligrams, and in some cases as little as one or two fibers," said Evershed. The analysis revealed that the main products used to treat all the mummies were derived from plant, and to a lesser extent animal, oils.

"Buckley and Evershed found more substances, such as plant and animal oils, used in the mummification process than had been documented in earlier studies," said Wisseman.

"The presence of these oils," she added, "suggests that Egyptians may have used less expensive materials as a base, and then added the more exotic—and expensive—embalming agents, which makes complete sense to me."

More Studies Expected

This was the first systematic study of organic materials of mummies with known dates and origins, said Evershed. "Earlier studies have looked at one or two mummies at a time," he said, "but that has no meaning archaeologically—you need a number of samples in chronological order."

The technique the researchers used should prove a boon to mummy studies, said Wisseman.

Previously, scientists wanting to analyze the mummification process faced an obstacle because their need for specimens entailed damage to valuable museum pieces.

"This research opens other avenues for study," said Wisseman, who was formerly a museum curator. "And because this technique uses such tiny samples, museum curators are likely to be more willing to contribute specimens for study."

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