Discovery of embalming workshop reveals how ancient Egyptians mummified the dead

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In the ruins of an embalming workshop, scientists have discovered the substances and concoctions the ancient Egyptians used to mummify the dead.

While scholars had already learned the names of substances used to embalm the dead from Egyptian texts, they were – until recently – only able to guess exactly which compounds and materials they were referring to. Now molecular analysis of residues in jars extracted from a site discovered in 2016 in Saqqara, an ancient cemetery, revealed some answers.

A total of 121 vessels were recovered from the underground embalming workshop, which was in use in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. In research published Wednesday in the science journal Nature, scientists based in Germany and Egypt studied organic residue in 31 of the most clearly labeled jars.

They revealed that the ancient Egyptians used a wide variety of substances to anoint the body after death, to reduce unpleasant odors and protect it from fungus, bacteria and putrefaction. Materials identified include vegetable oils such as juniper, cypress and cedar as well as resins from pistachio trees, animal fats and beeswax, among others.

Archaeologists have also been able to determine which particular substances were used to preserve different parts of the body. (Pistachio resin and castor oil, for example, were only used for the head.)

“I was fascinated by this chemical knowledge,” said Philipp Stockhammer, professor of prehistoric archeology in the eastern Mediterranean at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and co-author of the research. said in a press briefing.

The embalming substances came from all over the Mediterranean and beyond.

“They… knew what substances they had to put on the skin – antibacterial, antifungal substances – to keep the skin as well preserved as possible without having any microbiological background, without even knowing the bacteria. This enormous knowledge has been accumulated over centuries.

The findings also included that the substance referred to by the ancient Egyptians as “antiu”, and has been translated as myrrh or frankincense, was a mixture of a number of different ingredients: a mixture of cedar oil, oil juniper and cypress and animal fats. .

Co-author Susanne Beck, a researcher in the Department of Egyptology and curator of the Egyptian Collection at the University of Tübingen in Germany, noted that it is unclear to what extent substances found at the Saqqara site were used universally. , for very few embalming workshops have been discovered.

The excavation area of ​​the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project overlooks the Pyramid of Unas and the Step Pyramid of Djoser.

The ingredients used in the workshop were varied and came not only from Egypt, but from far beyond. While many of the substances came from across the Mediterranean, they also found residues of dammar gum and elemi resin, which likely came from the forests of Southeast Asia, or possibly regions tropics of Africa.

According to the researchers, this revealed the exchange of goods over long distances – although more work is needed to understand the exact properties of these substances and why they come from so far away.

“These resins provide new evidence of long-distance trade networks and raise the question of how and when the Egyptians learned of the existence of these resins and gained a specialized understanding of their properties and their relevance for mummification,” said said Salima Ikram, eminent professor of Egyptology. at the American University in Cairo, in a commentary on the study.

Ikram, who was not involved in the research, said the Egyptians artificially preserved human and animal corpses in an effort to provide a permanent home for their souls. The mummification process, along with the associated rituals, usually took around 70 days and was thought to transform the deceased from an earthly being to a divine being.

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