Unveiling the nature of the materials used in mummification

Nevine El-Aref , Wednesday 1 Feb 2023

A team of researchers from Ludwig Maximilian University and the University of Tübingen in Germany, in cooperation with the National Research Center in Cairo, succeeded in solving some of the secrets of the ancient Egyptian mummification and the materials used in its process.



The team analyzed the organic residues found inside the pottery vessels that were discovered in 2018 in the so-called mummification workshop by the Egyptian-German archaeological mission headed by the late Ramadan B. Hussein as a part of his Saqqara Saite Tombs Project (SSTP).
“The results of this research were published today, February 1, 2023, in the scientific journal Nature, showing that the mission found the ancient Egyptian names of the organic substances used during the mummification process written in hieratic (daily use script) on the surface of some of the pottery vessels,” said Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Mostafa Waziri. 

He added that 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. 
The team studied and analyzed the organic residues found in the vessels from the workshop, in the hope of describing their chemical characteristics. By identifying these characteristics, the researchers hoped to be able match them to the materials used by the ancient Egyptians to preserve the human body, thus uncovering the principles and secrets of the mummification process

The researchers were able to identify each substance along with the specific body part for which it was intended. For the first time researchers were able to identify three aspects of the mummification process; namely, the material used, its name in the ancient Egyptian language, and the body part onto which it was applied.
“This discovery greatly contributes to 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 embalming of a specific part of the deceased’s body” asserted Waziri.
The research 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 indicates the existence of trade links and communication between those regions and ancient Egypt in that early period.
“The research showed that the vessels that were used in the mummification process were labeled with the names of their contents, as well as with instructions on how to use them, which contributed greatly to identifying the names of many of the materials used."

The chemical analysis of the remains that were found in the vessels showed for example the error of assuming that a substance so widely used in the descriptions of the mummification process such as “antiu” referred to frankincense. The results of the recent study show that, on the contrary, “antiu” is a mixture of cedar oil, Juniper/ cypress oil and animal fats.

“This study was done on the discovered materials by using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry,” said deputy director of the mission, Susanna Beck.

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