Science

Ancient Egyptians' early mummy embalming ‘recipe' revealed

Embalming was taking place much earlier than previously thought.

The ancient Egyptians developed sophisticated embalming treatments much earlier than previously thought, new research has shown.

Extensive forensic tests on an intact prehistoric mummy have revealed what is thought to be one of the first “recipes” they used to preserve bodies.

It includes similar antibacterial agents and similar proportions to those used at the height of embalming 2,500 years later.

The mummy, which dates from around 3700-3500 BC, has been housed in the Egyptian Museum in Turin since 1901 and was previously thought to have been naturally mummified.

It has never undergone conservation treatment and therefore could be accurately analysed by the team of researchers from the University of York and Macquarie University, Australia.

Chemical analysis showed plant oil, heated conifer resin, aromatic plant extract and a plant gum or sugar were mixed together and used to soak the textiles used to wrap the body.

Dr Stephen Buckley, an archaeologist from the University of York, said: “Having identified very similar embalming recipes in our previous research on prehistoric burials, this latest study provides both the first evidence for the wider geographical use of these balms and the first ever unequivocal scientific evidence for the use of embalming on an intact, prehistoric Egyptian mummy.

“Moreover, this preservative treatment contained antibacterial constituents in the same proportions as those used in later ‘true’ mummification.

Forensic tests have revealed a "recipe" used to embalm (Dr Stephen Buckley, University of York/ PA)
Forensic tests have revealed a ‘recipe’ used to embalm the mummy (Dr Stephen Buckley, University of York/PA)

“As such, our findings represent the literal embodiment of the forerunners of classic mummification, which would become one of the central and iconic pillars of ancient Egyptian culture.”

Mummification was previously accepted to be taking place from around 2,600 BC.

Dr Jana Jones, Egyptologist and expert on ancient Egyptian burial practices from Macquarie University, said: “The examination of the Turin body makes a momentous contribution to our limited knowledge of the prehistoric period and the expansion of early mummification practices as well as providing vital, new information on this particular mummy.

“By combining chemical analysis with visual examination of the body, genetic investigations, radiocarbon dating and microscopic analysis of the linen wrappings, we confirmed that this ritual mummification process took place around 3600 BC on a male, aged between 20 and 30 years when he died.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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