Research reveals new insights into ancient Egyptian embalming

Researchers have identified specific ancient Egyptian recipes for mixing chemicals used in embalming different parts of the human body.

The findings, based on analyses of an ancient embalming workshop in Egypt, advance our knowledge of the processes involved in ancient Egyptian mummification, the scientists say.

The mummification process was long, complex and involved the use of many different embalming substances.

But the process may also have played an important role in the early emergence of global trade, the study suggests.

While present-day knowledge of the products used to preserve the body mainly comes from ancient literature and analysis of mummies, the roles of various components and the overall procedure have remained largely unclear.

But researchers from Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) and the University of Tubingen, both in Germany, have now analysed 31 ceramic vessels recovered from an embalming workshop at Saqqara, Egypt.

The workshop dates back to the 26th Dynasty of Egypt (664-525 BC).

These vessels – large jars and pots – are inscribed with texts providing embalming instructions.

They include directions such as “to put on his head” or “bandage/embalm with it”, and/or names of the embalming substances.

As well as the instructions, the vessels also contain residues of embalming substances.

All this information enabled the researchers to understand which chemicals were used during mummification and how they were mixed, named and applied.

For example, the researchers found three different mixtures (which included substances such as elemi resin – from a tree native to the Philippines – Pistacia (pistachio) tree resin, by-products of juniper or cypress and beeswax) that were specifically used for embalming the head.

Other mixtures were used for washing the body or softening the skin.

Additionally, when they compared the mixtures identified through residue analysis with inscribed labels, the researchers found the usual translation of the ancient Egyptian word antiu as “myrrh” or “incense” may sometimes be wrong.

In the workshop they looked at, it did not represent a single substance but instead a mixture of fragrant oils or tar with fat, the archaeologists report.

Maxime Rageot, archaeologist at the University of Tübingen and head of the analysis project, said: “The substance labelled by the ancient Egyptians as antiu has long been translated as myrrh or frankincense.

“But we have now been able to show that it is actually a mixture of widely differing ingredients that we were able to pick apart with the aid of gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.”

The study also found that many of the embalming substances came from outside Egypt, suggesting the ancient Egyptians knew the properties of these products, rather than just using trial and error.

“What really surprised us was that the bulk of the substances used for embalming was not from Egypt itself.

“Some of them were imported from the Mediterranean region and even from tropical Africa and South East Asia,” said LMU archaeologist Professor Philipp Stockhammer.

Pistacia and juniper products were probably imported from the Levant, and elemi resins may have been from rainforests in South or South East Asia.

The researchers say this demonstrates the role of ancient Egyptian mummification in promoting long-distance trade with the Mediterranean and further afield.

Dr Rageot said: “Ultimately, Egyptian mummification probably played an important role in the early emergence of global networks.

“Large quantities of these exotic resins were needed.”

Prof Stockhammer added: “Thanks to all the inscriptions on the vessels, we will in future be able to further decipher the vocabulary of ancient Egyptian chemistry that we did not sufficiently understand to date.”

The findings are published in Nature.