Towards the secrets of mummification

Tuesday 7 Feb 2023

A team of researchers has come closer to discovering the secrets of ancient Egyptian methods of mummification

Saqqara Necropolis
Saqqara Necropolis


After thousands of years, some of the secrets of mummification that the ancient Egyptians kept for themselves in the search for eternity have finally been revealed by a team of researchers from the Ludwig Maximilian University and the University of Tübingen in Germany in cooperation with the National Research Centre in Cairo.

In an announcement last week, the team said they had succeeded in solving some of these secrets and the materials used in the mummification process by analysing the organic residues found inside pottery vessels discovered in 2018 in the so-called mummification workshop in the Saqqara Necropolis by an Egyptian-German archaeological mission headed by the late Ramadan B Hussein as part of the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project (SSTP). 

Many jars from the site were still inscribed with instructions like “to wash” or “to put on his head”, and by matching the writing on the outside of the vessels with the chemical traces inside the researchers uncovered new details about the “recipes” that helped preserve bodies for thousands of years as a result of the mummification process. 

The study was published in the scientific journal Nature, where the researchers wrote that the mission had found the ancient Egyptian names of the organic substances used during the mummification process written in hieratic (everyday script) on the surface of some of the pottery vessels. The names of the body parts onto which these organic materials were applied during the various stages of the embalming process were also written on the pottery. 

Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Mustafa Waziri said that the team had analysed the organic residues found in the vessels from the workshop in order to describe their chemical characteristics and identify the materials used by the ancient Egyptians to preserve the human body. 

The team was able to identify each substance along with the specific body part for which it was intended, he said. Importantly, the finds for the first time combined three different types of information about the mummification process, namely, the material used, its name in the ancient Egyptian language, and the body part onto which it was applied.

Revealing the nature of the materials used is very important to the understanding of mummification.

“This discovery greatly contributes to the better understanding of the well-known ancient texts concerning the process of mummification, because the team managed, for the first time, to identify the writings on the vessels with the chemical characteristics of their contents, and thus accurately determine the appropriate material for the embalming of a specific part of the deceased’s body,” Waziri said.

Deputy-Director of the mission Susanna Beck explained that the research had revealed that a number of materials used in the mummification process were imported from other parts of the ancient world, such as the Mediterranean region, tropical rainforests, and Southeast Asia. This indicated the existence of trade links and communication between those regions and ancient Egypt in the early period, she said.

The research also showed that the vessels that were used in the mummification process were labelled with the names of their contents, as well as instructions on how to use them, contributing greatly to the identification of the names of many of the materials used.

The analysis of the remains that were found in the vessels was carried out to determine their chemical components. For example, the substance antiu, which was used and frequently mentioned in the descriptions of the mummification process, was understood before as frankincense, but the results of the study showed that it was actually a mixture of cedar oil, juniper and cypress oil, and animal fats. 

This study was done on the discovered materials using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry techniques.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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