New research reveals rare ingredients that ancient Egyptians used to preserve mummies

Dozens of ceramic vessels discovered in the Saqqara necropolis still contain instructions on how to prepare the dead for eternal life

Saqqara mummies
A mummy from the Saqqara necropolis, shown to the public in January 2021.KHALED DESOUKI (AFP)
Miguel Ángel Criado

In the necropolises of ancient Egypt, there were workshops to prepare the deceased for the afterlife, much as today’s funeral homes prepare bodies before their final departure to the cemetery. Egyptian and German archaeologists have now unveiled the results of their research on more than a hundred ceramic vessels found inside the “funeral home” that once existed in the Saqqara necropolis, in the Giza Governorate along the Nile River. Their analysis has made it possible to identify the substances that were used to embalm the bodies. Many of these vessels are inscribed with what they once contained, along with instructions regarding how to prepare the deceased for eternal life.

Despite several analyses of mummified remains and embalming materials, the complex embalming process of ancient Egyptian civilization largely remains a mystery. It was known that the ancient Egyptians used beeswax, bitumen from the Dead Sea, cedar oils from present-day Lebanon and pistachio oils from Persia. Natron – or sodium carbonate – is a salt that was used to preserve both meats and corpses. But specific elements of the process – such as how, when and where to use each material – had not been confirmed. Certain substances had also not been properly identified, such as those referred to as antiu or sefet. These questions have now been cleared up by the discovery of the pottery.

The Saqqara necropolis was the main city of the dead in Memphis – the ancient Egyptian capital – for over 3,000 years. In 2016, archaeologists discovered an embalming workshop just a few feet from the half-ruined pyramid of King Unas. The workshop had several rooms, but the wabet – the evisceration room – stands out. There, the archaeologists found more than a hundred vessels – many of them already broken – dating from between 2,550 and 2,700 years ago.

Using two sophisticated analysis techniques – mass spectrometry and gas chromatography – many of the substances used by embalmers were detected. Some unknown ones were also documented. According to the researchers, the best part of the discovery was that dozens of the jars containing the chemicals had instructions. The hieroglyphic inscriptions explained what was inside and how to use it.

In one of the vessels, for example, instructions note that the content is meant to be used on the deceased’s head. After removing the brain – which was done in the wabet – a mixture of pistachio resin, cedar pitch and cypress, juniper oil and elemi essence should be applied. The latter comes from a resin exuded by aromatic trees from Southeast Asia, of the genus Canarium. Today, it is sold by herbalists and used for colds.

For the linen bandages with which the body was wrapped, another ceramic jar contained a mixture of elemi, olive oil, cypress oil and animal fat. This was meant for the body’s skin, to be applied on the third day of the ritual. A different vessel had a mixture that consisted of heated beeswax and animal fat. The entire embalming process lasted 70 days, with prayers and different treatments applied sequentially.

Philipp Stockhammer – an Egyptologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich – is a co-author of the recent study. He admits to “being fascinated by the chemical knowledge of the ancient Egyptians.”

In a virtual press conference, he explained how, “in the embalming process, once the body is removed from the natron salt [to dry it up], the skin immediately runs the risk of being colonized by microbes, which would devour it. They (the ancient Egyptians) knew which substances they needed to put on the skin – the antibacterial and antifungal compounds to keep it well preserved.” The embalmers had microbiological knowledge, without knowing about bacteria.

One of the recently-discovered jars contains a castor oil-based compound, used as an antiseptic and fungicide. In six broken pieces of a pot, there is information about the substances used to wash the corpse, reduce body odor and restore smoothness to the skin. Others contained damar gum-based compounds – still used today as varnish – meant to be applied to the skin. In several containers, there are natural adhesives to shroud the corpse with linen. The researchers also found specific formulas to treat the emptied liver and stomach..

Some of the vessels found in an embalming workshop carry hieroglyphics that explain how to embalm the dead
Some of the vessels found in an embalming workshop carry hieroglyphics that explain how to embalm the deadM. Abdelghaffar (Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, Universidad de Tubinga)

The work – published in the scientific journal Nature in January of this year – helps break down some of the terms found on the embalming papyri, matching them with the substances that they were referring to. In a press release, Susanne Beck – a director of the excavation and a researcher at the University of Tübingen, Germany – notes that “the names of many of the ingredients for embalming have been known since the ancient Egyptian writings were deciphered. Until now, we could only guess what substances were behind each name.”

The best example of this problem is offered by Maxime Rageot, a colleague of Beck’s and the lead author of the study:

“The substance labelled by the ancient Egyptians as antiu has long been translated as myrrh or frankincense. But now, we’ve been able to show that it’s actually a mixture of very different ingredients that we were able to categorize.” Specifically, the antiu used in the Saqqara necropolis was actually a mixture of cedar, animal fats and juniper or cypress oil.

When all the ingredients used in the mummification process are put on a map, one can easily see how far the Egyptian embalmers went. The argan oil came from North Africa; the cypress and juniper oils could have come from both southern Anatolia and the Iberian Peninsula. Dammar gum was obtained from the Shorea selanica – a species of plant that’s indigenous to Indonesia. Even farther away was elemi, brought by the embalmers from barks of trees that grow in the jungles of equatorial Africa or the contemporary Philippines. As Rageot states, “Egyptian mummification probably played an important role in the initiation of global [trading] networks.”

Jesús Herrerín López – a physical anthropologist and paleopathologist who was not involved in the study – points out that, by having the jars and containers inscribed, it’s been possible to relate what was written regarding the actual substances:

“Until now, the equivalences were made on a philological basis, creating a translation of the meaning of the word (for example, ‘myrrh’), taking into account what we knew of that substance through literary descriptions… but this [study] presents physical proof as to how a word must be related to the appropriate substance.”

In an email from Luxor – where, next week, the Spanish National Research Council’s Djehuty Project will open up its excavations to the public – Herrerín mentions another notable contribution of the new study:

“There are jars that tell us which part of the body [the chemicals] should be used on – an issue that was not completely clear before.”

Salima Ikram – an archaeologist from the American University in Cairo, unaffiliated with the study – tells EL PAÍS via email about the relevance of embalming for the ancient Egyptians: “Mummification was a way of transforming the deceased from a human being into a divine one that could live forever. The idea is that the soul can reanimate the body after its metamorphosis.”

Herrerín also emphasizes this. “Mummification was an essential requirement to complete a successful transit towards eternity. Obviously, the upper classes were very interested in it… but so was the rest of the population. It just so happens that the products used during this complicated process were not available to everyone.”

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