Embalming recipe reveals Egyptians used exotic oils from distant lands to prepare their mummies

dLabeled jars discovered in a 2,500-year-old embalming workshop have revealed the plant and animal extracts used to prepare ancient Egyptian mummies, including ingredients from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. Even more surprising, the team of scientists were able to associate the different substances with the specific parts of the body they were used on.

Header image: Representation of the Saqqara underground embalming laboratory in ancient Egypt. (Nikola Nevenov/ Nature)

This finding is, in part, due to the residues themselves, which were studied using biomolecular techniques, but many containers were intact, including not only the designation of their contents, but also instructions for their use.

According to archaeologist Susanne Beck, of the University of Tübingen in Germany:

We have known the names of many of these embalming ingredients since ancient Egyptian writings were deciphered. But until now, we could only guess what substances are hidden behind each name.

The laboratory was part of an entire funerary complex at Saqqara, Egypt discovered by a joint German-Egyptian team in 2018 (link below), dating to the 26th dynasty or Saite period, between 664 and 525 BC. The excavations led by the archaeologist Ramadan Hussein of the University of Tübingen, who sadly passed away last year, before the work could be completed.

In 2018:

Discovery of an ancient mummy factory in Egypt

Grave goods therefore included mummies, canopic jars containing their organs, and Shabti figurines, meant to serve the dead in their afterlife. And there was the laboratory, filled with ceramic pots and measuring cups and bowls, neatly labeled according to contents or use.

From the study: The embalming rooms and burial chambers of the Saqqara complex. (M.Rageot et al./ Nature)

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Led by archaeologist Maxime Rageot, from the University of Tübingen, the researchers carried out a thorough examination of 31 of these containers, using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to determine the ingredients of the embalming products they contained. The detailed results are fascinating and, in some cases, completely unexpected.

According to Maxime Rageot:

The substance labeled by the ancient Egyptians as antiu was long translated as myrrh or frankincense. But now we’ve been able to show that it’s actually a blend of very different ingredients.

The team found these ingredients to be cedar, juniper or cypress oil and animal fat, although the blend can vary from place to place and from time to time. The researchers also compared the instructions on some of the containers with their contents to determine how each concoction was used. Instructions included “put it on your head”, “bandage or embalm yourself with it”, and “make it smell nice”.

Some of the vases found in the embalming workshop. (Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, University of Tübingen/ M. Abdelghaffar)

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Eight different vessels had instructions regarding the handling of the deceased’s head. Pistachio resin and castor oil were ingredients that only appeared in these containers, often in a blend containing other elements, such as elemi resin, vegetable oil, beeswax, and tree oils.

Animal fat and Burseraceae resin were used to treat decomposing body odor and animal fat and beeswax were used to treat the skin on the third day of treatment. Tree oils or bitumen, as well as vegetable oils or animal fats, could be used to treat the bandages used to wrap the mummy, as was found in eight other vessels.

But there’s more… what these mixtures can reveal about world trade at the time.

The pistachio, cedar oil and bitumen probably came from the Levant, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. However, elemi and another resin called dammar come from much further afield: elemi grows in both sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, but the tree that produces dammar only grows in southern Asia . It is therefore possible that these two resins took the same trade route to Egypt, the researchers note in their study, suggesting that great efforts were made to obtain the specific ingredients used for embalming. This may have played an important role in establishing global trade networks.

Meanwhile, the team will continue work on the 121 bowls and cups recovered from the lab.

According to archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany:

Thanks to all the inscriptions on the vessels, in the future we will be able to more accurately decipher the vocabulary of ancient Egyptian chemistry, which we did not sufficiently understand until now.

The study published in Nature: Biomolecular analyzes enable new insights into ancient Egyptian embalming, presented in this same journal: The surprising chemicals used to embalm Egyptian mummies and on the Louis-et-Maximilien University of Monaco website: The Mummification Chemistry – Global Network Traces.

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