07 February 2023
For thousands of years, ancient Egyptians preserved their dead in a process known as mummification. Now, researchers have used chemistry and an unusual collection of containers to figure out how they did it.
The study, published recently in Nature, is based on a rare find: An embalming workshop with pottery that is around 2,500 years old. Many containers from the site still had instructions written on them like "to wash" or "to put on his head."
By matching the writing on the outside of the containers with the chemical traces inside, researchers discovered new details about how ancient Egyptians preserved bodies for thousands of years.
Joann Fletcher of Britain's University of York was not involved with the study. Fletcher described the find as " like a time machine, really... It's allowed us to not quite see over the shoulders of the ancient embalmers, but probably as close as we'll ever get."
The workshop is at the famous burial grounds of Saqqara. It was found in 2016 by study author Ramadan Hussein, who passed away last year.
Parts of the workshop sit above the surface, but a narrow area goes down to an embalming room and burial area underground, where the containers were discovered.
It was in rooms like these where the last part of the embalming process took place, said Salima Ikram of The American University in Cairo. Ikram was not involved with the study. After drying out the body with salts, which probably took place above ground, embalmers would then take the bodies below.
Experts already had some clues about what substances were used in those final steps, mainly from testing individual mummies and looking at written texts. But a lot of information remained unclear, said senior author Philipp Stockhammer of the Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany.
The new finds helped break the case.
Take the word "antiu," which shows up in a lot of Egyptian texts but did not have a direct translation, Stockhammer said. In the new study, scientists found that several containers with the word "antiu" contained a mixture of different substances — including animal fat, cedar oil and juniper resin.
These substances, along with others found in the containers, have important properties that would help preserve the mummies, said lead author Maxime Rageot of Germany's University of Tubingen.
Plant oils could fight off bacteria and fungi, while also improving the smell. Hard materials like beeswax, used on the stomach and skin, could help keep out water and seal the pores.
Some of the substances came from very far away — like dammar and elemi, types of resin that come from Southeast Asia. These results show that ancient Egyptians would trade far and wide to get the best materials, the authors said.
"It's interesting to see the complexity," Stockhammer said. "Having this global network on the one hand, having all this chemical knowledge on the other side."
Ikram said an important next step for the research will be to test different parts of mummies to see if the same substances show up. And these embalming instructions were probably not always the same — they changed over time and differed between workshops.
Still, the study gives a basis for understanding the past, and can bring us closer to people who lived long ago, she said.
"The ancient Egyptians have been separated from us through time and space, yet we still have this connection," Ikram said. "Human beings all throughout history have been scared of death."
I'm John Russell.
Maddie Burakoff reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
preserve – v. to keep (something) safe from harm or loss
embalm – v. to treat (a dead body) with special chemicals to keep it from decaying
trace -- n. a small amount of something
allow -- v. to make it possible for someone or something to have or do something
author – n. a person who has made an important contribution to a journal article
clue -- n. something that helps a person find something, understand something, or solve a mystery or puzzle
resin – n. a yellow or brown sticky substance that comes from some trees and that is used to make various products
global -- adj.