History Stories

Egyptologists once thought a body dating from 3700-3500 B.C. had been naturally mummified, but analysis shows it has traces of an embalming recipe used on mummies thousands of years later.

By the time pharaohs like King Tut ruled Egypt, mummification was a codified practice that had started in the Old Kingdom period around 2500 B.C.—or so historians thought. Now, analysis shows that ancient Egyptians began passing down a standard embalming recipe more than 1,500 years earlier.

The evidence comes from funerary textiles from one of the oldest recorded cemeteries in Egypt—and, in a first, chemical analysis of a fully intact mummy. The mummy, named only “S. 293,” is fully visible and curled in a fetal position in its display at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy. Radiocarbon dating places it more than a thousand years older than the Old Kingdom and centuries beyond the original unification of Egypt in 3100 BC.

Egyptologists believed that mummies of its type were purely the result of “natural” mummification, their soft tissue preserved organically by the dry, hot environment. But analysis of the specimen by researchers, including chemical archeologist Stephen Buckley of the University of York, revealed signs of an embalming recipe on the mummy, suggesting its preservation was no accident of nature.

In a paper published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Buckley and his colleagues found the mummy had traces of plant and animal oils, aromatic plant extracts, plant gum and pine resin–nearly the same ingredients in the same proportions as the embalming recipe used 3,000 years later by King Tut’s priests.

The analysis matches a similar finding in 2014 when Buckley’s team got their hands on funerary textiles dating from 4300 B.C. They found the combination of ingredients found on the Turin mummy and on mummies prepared thousands of years later.

The mummy that had undergone an embalming process. (Credit: Dr Stephen Buckley/University of York)

The mummy that had undergone an embalming process. (Credit: Dr Stephen Buckley/University of York)

“This embalming recipe was being used not just at one site, but across Egypt,” says Buckley. “It’s suggesting that there was enough cross-cultural interaction and exchange of ideas to allow this common embalming recipe to be used in the southern parts of Egypt over some distance before there was an Egyptian state and an Egyptian identity.”

The finding resets the clock on one of the most central practices of ancient Egyptian religion and culture, the preservation of the dead in order to house the soul in the afterlife. Buckley theorizes that prehistoric Egyptians developed the ideal embalming recipe through a ritualistic form of scientific method. The initial use of the balm was probably symbolic, a way to ritually anoint the body in preparation for burial. But over time, they likely observed that different ingredients in different combinations had the effect of preserving soft tissue longer.

The prehistoric Egyptians didn’t know that ingredients like pine resin have natural antibacterial properties, but the preservative effect would have been clear.

“In Western cultures, we like to separate the symbolic and magical from the scientific, but for the ancient Egyptians, those two aspects were very much intertwined,” says Buckley.

The biggest differences between the mummification rituals of prehistoric Egyptians and those of later periods is the introduction of sealed tombs. The ancient embalming recipe works great in combination with exposure to the arid desert environment, but oils and resin alone wouldn’t have been enough to halt decomposition in a closed stone box.

For that, Buckley explains, embalmers developed the practice of removing the organs from the deceased and coating the body inside and out with natron, a type of salt, to draw all moisture from the skin. Only then would the body be wrapped in many layers of cloth coated in the ancient embalming resin—and preserved for millennia.

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