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Surprising Mummy Ingredients Discovered in Ancient Egyptian Workshop

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Surprising Mummy


In a 2,600-year-old embalming workshop, scientists have discovered the ingredients needed to make a mummy: the tars, fats, tree resins, and oils that ancient Egyptians used to preserve bodies and prepare them for the afterlife.

The findings, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, suggest that the substances used to make Egyptian mummies – at least at this workshop – were the product of a remarkably global supply chain, relying on trade with the Mediterranean. , the rest of Africa and possibly even Asia to source specific ingredients with antifungal and antibacterial properties.

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“That’s really the most fascinating part,” said Mahmoud M. Bahgat, a biochemist at the National Research Center in Cairo and a member of the research team. “If the Egyptians went this far to get these particular natural products, from these particular countries and not from other intermediate countries, it means that they meant it, it was not just done as a trial and error. . They knew microbiology.”

A handful of embalming manuals – as well as chemical studies of selected mummies – have long been the main windows into the mysterious and elaborate 70-day process of drying and preserving the bodies. Then, in 2016, archaeologists unearthed an underground embalming workshop located close to the famous pyramids of Saqqara, the necropolis of the ancient Egyptian capital Memphis.

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The site contains more than 100 vessels, including clay beakers and red bowls, some bearing labels explaining how the contents should be used in the mummification process: “to put on his head” or “to make his smell pleasant”. or to protect the liver.

With these containers inscribed, scientists could do chemical analysis of the residues inside to try to reconstruct their original contents. The result is a very specific window into the mummy-making process.

“What I love about archeology is that we have all these texts referring to mummification, but this archaeological find gives us this huge amount of information that you don’t get from text,” said Stuart Tyson Smith. , an Egyptologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. who did not participate in the work? “The physicality of it, these materials connected to it, gives us a rich sense of this process of preserving the body.”

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The study provides a wealth of intriguing information about how ancient Egyptians sourced embalming materials.

Natural bitumen, a tar-like substance, is believed to come from the Dead Sea. Juniper and cypress by-products and resin from a genus of flowering plants called pistachio probably came from the Mediterranean region. They also used resin from elemi, a tree that grows in the tropical forests of Africa and Asia.

More intriguingly, scientists have found dammar resin, which comes from a family of trees that grow in the forests of India and Southeast Asia.

“The embalming industry was a driver of early globalization because it meant that you really had to transport these resins over great distances – from Southeast Asia to Egypt,” said the study’s co-author. Philipp W. Stockhammer, an archaeologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Stockhammer believes this happened through a trade network stretching from southern India and the northern Gulf region to Egypt.

But Smith said he was not entirely convinced of the result of dammar, which was only found in one sample and is the only ingredient that requires a trade route to Asia. After thousands of years, the residue is old and degraded, so chemical analysis can give clues to what was inside the containers, but not firm readings. This leaves room for scientific debate over whether a residue is the chemical fingerprint of a particular plant.

Smith noted, for example, that some of the chemicals analyzed could have been interpreted as evidence that the Egyptians imported plants found in the Americas today. “We know there was no cross-trade between the old world and the new world, so they rejected those assumptions,” Smith said.

The new study challenges other long-held assumptions about ancient Egypt. In the texts, “anti” has long been considered a word meaning myrrh. But five containers labeled anti in Saqqara actually contained a mixture of animal fat and oil or tar from cedar, juniper, and cypress. Similarly, “safety” is thought to refer to a holy oil, but three containers with this label contained animal fats combined with vegetable additives, suggesting that it could be more of a perfumed ointment.

In the tombs of Saqqara, new discoveries rewrite the history of ancient Egypt

Sofie Schiødt, an Egyptologist at the University of Tubingen in Germany, studied an embalming manual from an earlier period dated around 1450 BC. said the finds will raise questions about the specificity of the Saqqara finds to the site at any given time.

Antiu’s lineup, she said, is “really nothing close to what we would expect. The question is, why do we find this discrepancy? »

One option, she said, is that years of studying the texts are just plain wrong. But it’s also possible that there’s something unique about the containers on this site, or that the ingredients used – or the word itself – have evolved over time.

“This new study is really important because it gives us very hard new evidence,” Schiødt said. “But that’s not quite what we would expect to find, so what does that mean?”

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