Scientists have uncovered the materials and mixtures that ancient Egyptians used to mummify the dead from the remnants of an embalming workshop.
Although researchers previously discovered the names of materials used to embalm the dead from Egyptian texts, they were only able to make educated guesses as to the precise compounds and materials they referred to until recently.
Now, some explanations have been provided by genetic analysis of residues found in pots removed from an ancient burial site in Saqqara that was found in 2016.
The underground embalming factory, which was in use during the seventh and sixth centuries BC, yielded a total of 121 jars. The scientists from Germany and Egypt examined the organic residues in 31 of the pots with the best labeling for their study, which was published on Wednesday in the scholarly journal Nature.
According to what they discovered, the ancient Egyptians employed a wide range of ingredients to anoint the body after death in order to mask foul odors and guard it against fungi, bacteria, and putrefaction.
Materials found include beeswax, animal fat, and plant oils from juniper, cypress, and cedar trees, as well as resins from pistachio trees.
Additionally, the materials employed to preserve various body parts were identified by archaeologists. (For example, only the head received the usage of pistachio resin and castor oil.)
The research’s coauthor and professor of prehistoric archaeology of the eastern Mediterranean at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Philipp Stockhammer, said in a news briefing, “I was fascinated by this chemical knowledge.
“They knew what substances they needed to apply to the skin—antibacterial and antifungal substances—to keep it as healthy as possible without having any background in microbiology or even understanding bacteria. Over centuries, this vast body of knowledge accumulated.
Additionally, it was discovered that the material known to the ancient Egyptians as “antiu,” which has been interpreted as myrrh or incense, was a combination of a number of various substances, including a mixture of cedar oil, juniper and cypress oil, and animal fats.
However, due to the scarcity of discovered embalming workshops, coauthor Susanne Beck, a researcher in the Department of Egyptology and the curator of the Egyptian Collection at the University of Tübingen in Germany, noted that it is challenging to determine how frequently the materials found at the Saqqara site were used.
The workshop used a variety of substances that were sourced from places other than Egypt. While many of the substances came from different parts of the Mediterranean, they also discovered residues of dammar gum and elemi resin, which most likely originated in southeast Asian forests or perhaps tropical areas of Africa.
The researchers claimed that this demonstrated the long-distance exchange of goods, but that further research was necessary to determine the precise characteristics of these materials and the reasons they came from such a great distance.
In a commentary on the study, Salima Ikram, a distinguished professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo, questioned how and when the Egyptians learned about these resins and acquired a specialized understanding of their properties and relevance to mummification. “These resins provide fresh evidence for long-distance trade networks,” Ikram said.
Ikram, who wasn’t involved in the study, claimed that Egyptians preserved human and animal corpses through artificial means in order to give their souls a permanent residence.
The ceremonies involved in mummification typically lasted for 70 days and were believed to change the departed from an earthly to a divine person.