New insights into ancient Egyptian embalming

New insights into ancient Egyptian embalming
This handout image released by The Ludwig Maximilian University Munich on January 31, 2023, shows an artist's impression of embalming scenes which could have taken place in Saqqara, Egypt. A study released on February 1, 2023, reveals the ingredients used by ancient Egyptians for mummification, which influenced trade in the Mediterranean and up to Asia. (AFP)
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Updated 02 February 2023

New insights into ancient Egyptian embalming

New insights into ancient Egyptian embalming
  • Nature of materials used in mummification process unveiled by researchers, ministry says

CAIRO: Researchers have unlocked the secrets of the mummification process used in ancient Egypt, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said.

A team of researchers from Ludwig Maximilian and Tubingen universities in Germany, in cooperation with the National Research Center in Cairo, set out to study materials used by ancient Egyptian embalmers.

Specialists analyzed organic remains found inside pottery pots discovered in a mummification workshop unearthed by the Egyptian-German archaeological mission led by Ramadan Badri in Saqqara in 2018.

Their work was part of a tombs project focusing on the El-Sawy era between 664 and 525 B.C. 

Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said that the research results were published in the scientific journal Nature on Feb. 1.

The mission found the names of organic remains used during the mummification process written in the ancient Egyptian language on the surface of the pottery vessels, as well as the names of organs and body parts the organic materials were used on during the mummification process.

Specialists studied the organic remains to determine their chemical properties and to identify each material according to the target part of the body.

The research revealed three important pieces of information about the mummification process: the material itself, its name in the ancient Egyptian language, and its place of use.

Waziri said that the discovery updates familiar texts about ancient Egyptian mummification techniques.

The team was able to accurately determine the material used to embalm specific parts of the body for the first time after comparing the materials that were identified with what was written on the utensils, he said.

Research revealed that a number of materials used in the mummification process were imported from around the Mediterranean region and from Southeast Asia, indicating the existence of links and communication between those regions in that early period.

Susanna Beck, deputy head of the mission, said that the research contributed greatly to knowledge about many of the embalming components.

Remains found in the pots were partially isolated to determine their chemical components, she said.

For example, the substance “antiu,” — mentioned frequently in describing the mummification processes — was translated as “frankincense,” but the results of the study showed that it is a mixture of cedarwood oil, juniper oil (cypress) and animal fat.

Beck said the study was done by using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry on the discovered materials.