Egyptian mummification has been a source of fascination for historians, archaeologists and scientists alike for centuries. A recent study conducted by German and Egyptian researchers has finally uncovered the chemical makeup of the mysterious embalming salves and fluids used by the ancient Egyptians to preserve their royalty and important individuals.
After carrying out a molecular analysis of chemical residues removed from what would have been a bustling embalming workshop 2,600 years ago, the archaeologists were able to identify the chemical compounds contained in the embalming salves and fluids. The names of the Egyptian embalming substances were already known, but the exact contents of these concoctions were considered a mystery—until now.
The Essential Source Materials
The embalming workshop that provided the resources for this comprehensive study published in Nature, was discovered in 2018 in Saqqara, an Egyptian village in the Giza Governorate that is the site of the necropolis of the ancient capital city of Memphis. The molecular analysis was performed on traces of residue collected from well-preserved ceramic pots, which were identified as holding embalming liquids.
The Saqqara Saite Tombs Project excavation area, overlooking the pyramid of Unas and the step pyramid of Djoser north-west-facing. (© Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany. Photographer: S. Beck/ Nature
A total of 121 vessels were recovered from the underground embalming and mummification workshop , which was apparently in use during the sixth and seventh centuries BC, during the time of Egypt’s 26th Dynasty. The organic residues were carefully removed from 31 clearly labeled pots, and the analysis of these chemical traces proved to be quite revealing.
The German scientists, along with Egyptian colleagues from the National Research Center in Cairo, identified a broad range of compounds that were used to prepare the substances used in the mummification process . The mixture of biochemicals detected included plant oils from elemi, cedar, cypress and juniper trees, castor plant oil, dammar gum, resins harvested from pistachio trees, animal fats and high-grade beeswax.
“We were able to identify the true chemical makeup of each substance,” said LMU archaeologist and study co-author Philipp Stockhammer , during a press conference about the new study reported on by Live Science . “Often [embalming vessels become contaminated over time], but in this case they’re not. A lot of the vessels in this case were in good condition.”
Vessels which contained residue of embalming fluids, from the Saqqara workshop. (© Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany. Photographer: M. Abdelghaffar/ Nature)
As the research team explained in an article just published in the journal Nature, the materials in the embalming substances were chosen for their capacity to prevent putrefaction of a body after death, to reduce the production of unpleasant smells, and to keep the corpse from being attacked by bacteria or fungi.
“I was fascinated by this chemical knowledge,” Stockhammer, a specialist in of prehistoric archaeology of the eastern Mediterranean, stated:
“They… knew what substances they needed to put on the skin — antibacterial, antifungal substances — to keep the skin best possibly preserved without having any microbiological background, without even knowing about bacteria. This enormous knowledge was accumulated over centuries.”
Interestingly, the archaeologists were able to determine which substances were used to preserve which parts of the body during the mummification process . For example, the pistachio resin and castor oil were apparently applied to the heads of mummified corpses exclusively. This data was disclosed on the inscriptions on the pots, which identified the substances inside and also outlined their intended uses.
Embalming scene with priest in underground chamber. ( © Nikola Nevenov/ Nature)
Ancient International Trade and its Connection to Egyptian Mummification
One of the most surprising discoveries was that the Egyptians embalming fluid formulas contained substances that were not native to the immediate region. The elemi tree actually grows in the Philippines, for example, while dammar gum comes from a tree that is native to Malaysia.
In addition to these southeast Asian imports, ingredients sourced from other parts of the Mediterranean region and from tropical areas of Africa were used in the embalming fluids as well.
“These resins provide fresh evidence for long-distance trade networks, and raise the question of how and when the Egyptians learnt of these resins and obtained a specialized understanding of their properties and relevance to mummification,” said Salima Ikram, a distinguished professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo, in a commentary quoted by CNN.
Maxime Rageot, an archaeologist from the University of Tübingen who led the analysis of the embalming substances, believes the relationship between long-distance exchange networks and Egyptian mummification is not coincidental.
“Ultimately, Egyptian mummification probably played an important role in the early emergence of global networks,” he said. It seems that the ancient Egyptians were serious about their embalming practices and apparently knew what worked the best and weren’t willing to settle for less, even if compounds and materials had to be imported from distant lands.
Ikram, who didn’t participate in this newest research project, explained that Egyptians sought to preserve deceased humans and animals in as perfect a state as possible, so their transition to the afterlife would be as smooth as possible. The complete mummification process, which included rituals that would help a dead dignitary make the conversion from earthly body to divine being , often took as long as 10 weeks to finish.
What Egyptologists Know—and Still Don’t Know—about Ancient Mummification
Despite the significance of the results obtained in this study, there are lingering questions about the scope of what has been discovered.
The German and Egyptian researchers acknowledge that the embalming workshop excavated at Saqqara represents a relatively rare discovery. Archaeologists have unearthed only a few embalming workshops over the years, and these installations span such an enormous amount of time. The Egyptians first began mummifying their dead around 2,600 BC, during the time of the Old Kingdom , and continued the practice into at least the early years of the much later Roman Period (30 BC to 364 AD).
With few samples of ancient embalming substances (or written descriptions of them) to work with, it is very difficult for Egyptologists to chart changes in embalming practices and the substances used over such a vast period of time. More studies like this one would need to be completed, on residues from workshops already found and from those that might be found in the future, to learn more about the evolution of Egyptian embalming practices over the course of nearly 3,000 years.
The only thing that can be said for certain right now is that in the first millennium BC, ancient Egyptian embalmers working in Saqqara on the bodies of deceased royalty from Memphis and the surrounding area used the particular mixtures of substances identified in the latest study. How broadly these specific substances were used in ancient Egypt as a whole, and when exactly their formulas were perfected, remains unknown.
Top image: Embalming scene in underground chamber. Source: © Nikola Nevenov / Nature
By Nathan Falde