New study shows Egyptian mummification began 6,000 years ago

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It has generally been accepted that the ancient Egyptian practice of mummification began around 2,200 BC, but new research published this month shows that it was already taking place more than 6,000 years ago.

Dr. Jana Jones of Macquarie University in Australia, a member of the research team who carried out the study, said that the findings, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, push the origins of mummification in ancient Egyptian culture back by some 1,500 years.

The ancient Egyptians believed the body was the house of the soul, so even after death the spirit could only live on if the body was preserved forever.  If the body decayed, so did the soul.

Canopic jars were used by the Ancient Egyptians during the mummification process to store and preserve the internal organs

Priests wrapped the mummy with linen strips containing resin, placed the internal organs in canopic jars, and blessed the entrance of the mummy’s tomb at the funeral.

Egyptian priests used mixtures of palm wine and fragrent resins to cleanse and seal the body

The mummified remains stayed in good condition because the process successfully removed moisture from the body in order to slow down the process of decay.

The practice became more popular during the Middle Kingdom between 2,000 and 1,600 BC.

The team studied linen strips wrapped around mummified bodies excavated from tombs in Badari and Mostagedda in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s.

Grave 408, Mostagedda. Late Neolithic/Tasian (Photo: G. Brunton, Mostagedda and the Tasian Culture London 1937)

The funerary linen samples, some dating back to 4,500 BC, had not been archaeologically analysed in 80 years.

Slide preparations for microscopy, early 19th century. Bolton Museum in England (Photo: Ron Oldfield)

Dr. Jones was allowed to take 92 samples from Bolton museum back to Australia for more analysis.

The bodies had been wrapped in linen in the more extravagant graves, suggesting only the privileged in this ancient society were preserved.

Some of the graves had more offerings than others, such as a child buried with a pet gazelle and a lot of jewellery.

The bodies were not completely mummified, only certain parts of the body, such as the head and the hands.

Only certain parts of the body, like the head and the hands, were mummified as the ‘Leeds Mummy” Nesyamun c.1100 BC – (Photo: Leeds Museums and Galleries England)

Traces of complex embalming agents were found and identified as a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum, a natural petroleum source and a plant oil or animal fat in the funerary wrappings.

Multiple layers of wrappings with ‘resins’ Bolton Museum, Early Predynastic, Mostagedda. (Photo: Ron Oldfield and Jana Jones)

The embalming agents that were found make up a similar recipe to those used at Pharaonic mummification around 3,000 years later.

Linen, bone, skin, desiccated body tissue, resin – Predynastic period, Mostagedda. (Photo: Ron Oldfield and Jana Jones)

Dr. Stephen Buckley, a Research Fellow at the University of York in England, conducted the chemical analyses of the balm.

“The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localised soft-tissue preservation lead us to conclude that these represent the experimentation which would eventually evolve into the mummification practice of the Pharaonic period,” he said.

The features of flax are shown at 150 x in crossed polars from Bolton museum Mostagedda tombs, early predynastic (Photo: Ron Oldfield)

These recipes contained antibacterial agents, used in the same proportions as were employed by the Egyptian embalmers when their skill was at its peak, some 2,500–3,000 years later.

Two layers of textile, the inner impregnated with embalming substances 1.5 x – early predynastic, Mostagedda, Bolton museum (Photo: Ron Oldfield and Jana Jones)

Professor Thomas Higham, who was responsible for dating the burials at the University of Oxford in England, said that the work demonstrates the major potential in museum collections to allow researchers to learn more about the archaeological past of the ancient Egyptians.

Resinous material on fibres after one week in solvent 125 x crossed polars – early predynastic period, Bolton museum (Photo: Ron Oldfield)

“Using modern scientific tools our work has helped to illuminate a key aspect of the early history of ancient Egypt,” he said.

A thousand years before people could write, the ancient Egyptians understood the complex science of mummification.