Understanding the news: A history of mummification or "A prehistoric Egyptian mummy: Evidence for an ‘embalming...

Understanding the news: A history of mummification or "A prehistoric Egyptian mummy: Evidence for an ‘embalming recipe’ and the evolution of early formative funerary treatments"
Grab some refreshment, sit down, relax and let me unpack this story for you.

There are different kinds of mummies. The archaeological evidence shows us that the ancient Egyptians experimented with different kinds of processes when attempting to preserve the dead, but unfortunately they left no written records as to how these things were done. The first accounts we have are from Classical writers such as Herodotus (whose grasp of Egyptian culture could be tenuous at best, fanciful at worst.)

The basic point is, mummification didn't suddenly appear, nor was it a set, effective process. In some periods, defleshed skeletons were wrapped in linen and buried. In others, the body was simply encased in cartonnage. In the Late Period, more effort was put into fancy wrapping patterns and beautiful realistic portraits. Basically, mummies and how they were made varied from period to period.

We have a good basic understanding of how preservation was attempted, we have recipes for the various oils and other ingredients used - insofar as they can be identified with our current technology. This is because, despite advances in our ability to test substances, there is a degradation caused through time, environmental factors and contamination which make it impossible to identify exact species of plants from extracts but general families can be identified with reasonable certainty.

It's long been assumed that the first mummies were created naturally by close proximity to the hot desert sands where the body dried quickly and decay was impeded.

The earliest burials were hollowed out of desert sand. The body was placed in a contracted position on the side and some grave goods like pottery vessels, cosmetic palettes and weapons were added. Then the sand was pushed over the top and mounded up.

Recent analysis of textiles from the earliest burials has revealed the presence of compounds associated with later mummification techniques. This suggested that the process of artificial mummification might be a lot older than first supposed. So a multi-disciplinary group set out to see if these compounds could be found on pre-Dynastic mummies.

Unfortunately most of the mummies available for study have been subjected to chemicals and contamination that make it extraordinarily difficult to test them properly. The example at Turin, however seemed an appropriate candidate for testing, and compounds were indeed found.

Whether the ancient Egyptians happened upon a good recipe to assist in the preservation of bodies much earlier than previously thought, or whether the substances were of long term religious and ritual significance is as yet unclear.

Some media reports have mentioned sesame oil - the introduction of sesame into the Middle East is not yet fully understood and is generally held (based on archaeological evidence) to have taken place much later than the materials in this study. It is not mentioned in the paper submitted by the researchers to the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Conclusions from the study:
"This study presents the first extant Predynastic mummy (dating to Naqada IA-IIB; c. 3700–3500 BC) with unequivocal scientific evidence for 'embalming agents' employed in the funerary treatment of the body.The results reveal a recipe of a plant oil, with far lesser amounts of a heated conifer resin, an aromatic plant extract/‘balsam’ and a plantgum/sugar, which is notably similar to those ‘balms’ identified in pre-historic times both in terms of the constituents and relative proportions of those ingredients. Moreover, this recipe contained antibacterial agents, used in similar proportions to those employed by the Egyptian embalmers when their skill was at its peak, some 2500 years later. Assuming the Turin mummy originates from the area between Naga el-Deir and Gebelein, based on all other known examples, the findings provide first evidence to suggest the use of a similar complex prehistoric funerary recipe was likely to have been extended over a wider geo-graphical area, albeit with some variation possibly reflecting regional differences. Consequently, the antibacterial properties of the resin and ‘balsam’ ingredients and the similarity of the prehistoric recipe to those embalming agents utilised at the zenith of ancient Egyptian mummification provide further evidence for the early use of embalming substancesaffording localised soft tissue preservation and as such represent herethe literal embodiment of the antecedents of classic mummification,which would become a central tenet of ancient Egyptian culture." [1]
To see the study results along with pictures, maps and tables, click the link below.
"A prehistoric Egyptian mummy: Evidence for an ‘embalming recipe’ and the evolution of early formative funerary treatments"
Edit: Updated for Blogger: original link now dead
Original article from the Journal of Archaeological Science
updated link


  1. thank you, Aakheperure Merytsekhmet.

  2. Thanks so much Aakheperure Merytsekhmet for your interesting post 💮

  3. Nightbird rasha kamel Thanks for your encouragement and support - it's always appreciated!
    I got so into the details from the actual study (I do so love a good bit of chemical analysis) and attempting to give it perspective for a wider audience that I completely forgot to link the wobbly news reports about it....


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