Grab a pen and paper because the scientific news of the day is a curious recipe. An international team of scientists has succeeded in deciphering the exact list of ingredients that the ancient Egyptians used to embalm their deceased and how they used them in the different stages of the mummification process. The study, published this Wednesday in the journal ‘Nature’, not only points to the use hitherto unknown substances. It also reveals an unprecedented network of international trade of compounds to embalm and mummify corpses.
To unravel this story let’s start, yes, at the beginning. The ‘art of embalming corpses’ developed in ancient Egypt as a way of preserve the bodies of the deceased and thus turn them into «permanent homes» for their souls. To achieve this, the mummification rituals displayed a series of medical, social and religious practices in which, on the one hand, the different parts of the body were brought to withstand the test of time and, on the other, the soul of the disappeared was helped to move to a better life.
The mummification process lasted about seventy days and is divided into several phases. In a first phase, the internal organs were extracted and the corpse was dried. The second stage was focused on wrapping the body with bandages. Throughout this process, a series of ointments to treat the different body parts and embalming the corpses. But what exactly were those potions wearing? The study published this Wednesday points to the «definitive recipe» to mummify someone.
Recipes to mummify
The molecular analysis of some vessels found in an embalming workshop from the Egyptian town Saqqara, located not far from the famous pyramid of Unis (Cairo), has managed to decipher the full list of ingredients used in the mummification process. The ‘recipes’ started from January oils and tars, cypress and cedar to animal fats and beeswax. Some of these substances, such as pistachio resin and castor oil, They were only used for specific parts of the body.. In this case, to smear the head of the deceased.
These ingredients were combined with each other to create different ointments. Two of the best known were the ‘antiu’ and the ‘sefet’. Until now, it was believed that they were mixtures of myrrh and oil but, according to the new analysis, it was more improved recipes. The ‘antiu’ was made by mixing cedar, juniper and cypress tar with animal fat. The ‘sefet’, for its part, was made with juniper and cypress oil with ruminant fat and ‘exotic’ plants such as elemi.
One of the most striking features of these recipes is that, contrary to what was believed until now, they were made using foreign ingredients. «Most of the substances used for embalming They did not come from Egypt itself. Some of these were imported from the Mediterranean region and even from tropical Africa Y southeast asia«, explains the archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer, one of the experts who has led this analysis.
«Mummification probably played an important role in the emergence of global trade networks»
The two clearest examples are the remains of dammar gum and of elemi resin, two ingredients that are only found in Southeast Asia and the tropical zone of the African continent. In both cases, according to the experts, the finding of these substances in Egyptian vessels points to the existence of a wide commercial network that reached Egypt. «Mummification probably played an important role in the emergence of global trade networks«, wields Maxime Rageotresearcher at the University of Tübingen and lead author of this study.