In the necropolises of ancient Egypt, as in those surrounding cemeteries today, there were workshops that, like present-day funeral homes, prepared those who passed on to the afterlife. Now, Egyptian and German archaeologists have found over a hundred ships mortuary From the city of the dead of Saqqara. Their analysis has made it possible to identify the substances they used to coat them. Better still, many of them have inscribed what they contain and instructions on how and where to use it to prepare the mummies for eternal life.
Despite numerous collapsing papyri and the recent analysis of many mummified remains, the Egyptian civilization’s complex mummification process remains largely a mystery. They were known to use wax obtained from the Dead Sea, shoe polish, cedar oil from present-day Lebanon or pistachio oil from the Persian lands, and especially natron (sodium carbonate), a salt both used for salting meat. Wala salt and to preserve corpses. But how, when and where to use each material was lacking. Proportions were missing, and it remained to identify the specific substances that were referred to in some of the Egyptian terms, such as Ancient why safety, which often appear in writings. Those instructions have appeared on pottery.
The Saqqara necropolis in Memphis (the capital of the Old Kingdom) was the main city of the dead for over 3,000 years. In 2016, archaeologists discovered a casting workshop a few meters from the half-ruined pyramid of King Unas. The workshop had many rooms, but this one stands out the most. honeycomb, evacuation room. There they found over a hundred pots, many of them already broken and dated to between 2,700 and 2,550 years ago. Using two sophisticated material analysis techniques (mass spectrometry and gas chromatography), they detected many of the substances used by Embermer, but some unknown and, above all, many unknown mixtures. Best of all, according to the authors of the find, dozens of jars contained instructions: hieroglyphic inscriptions that explained what was inside or how to use it.
In one pot, for example, it is noted that its contents are to be worn on the head. after removing the brain, which was done in honeycomb, a mixture of pistachio resin, cedar tar and cypress or juniper oil should be applied with elmi essence. The latter comes from the resin exuded by Southeast Asian trees of the genus Canarium. Today it can still be obtained from herbs, although it is used for colds. For the linen bandages with which the body was wrapped, one of the vessels contained another mixture of alum, then cypress oil, animal fat and oil, which chemical analysis showed was olive. For the skin and to be applied on the third day, another vessel contains hot wax and animal fat, either dairy or fat. The whole process of applying the paste lasted for 70 days, with his prayers and various remedies applied sequentially.
“The ancient Egyptians knew what substances they needed to keep their skin well protected. He had microbiological knowledge without knowing about bacteria”
Philipp Stockhammer, archaeologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (Germany)
Egyptologist Philipp Stockhammer of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (Germany), co-author of the study, admits to being “fascinated by the chemical knowledge of the ancient Egyptians”. In a virtual press conference, he explained: “In the embolization process, once the body is removed from the natron salt [para desecarlo], the skin immediately runs the risk of being colonized by microbes, which will eat away at it. They knew what substances they needed to put on the skin, antibacterial and antifungal compounds, to keep it well preserved. He had microbiological knowledge without knowing about bacteria.
One jar contains a castor oil-based compound, which is used as an antiseptic and fungicide. The six pots contain substances known to wash the body, reduce body odor, and even make the skin smoother. Others included damar gum-based compounds, which are still used today as a varnish to be applied to the skin. Many contain natural adhesives to cover the corpse with linen. He also discovered specific formulas for treating an empty liver and stomach.
Work, published in Nature, collation helps to relate some words from the papyri to the substance they actually referred to. In a press release, Susanne Beck, researcher at the University of Tübingen (Germany) and director of the excavation, says that “the names of many materials for embalming have been known since ancient Egyptian writings were deciphered, but until now, we could only make guesses.” could guess what substances were behind each name.
The problem is best illustrated by his university colleague and lead study author, Maxime Rejot: “The substance labeled by the ancient Egyptians Ancient It has long been translated as myrrh or frankincense. But now we’ve been able to show that it’s actually a mixture of very different materials that we were able to separate.” Specifically, Ancient The oil used in the Saqqara necropolis was a mixture of cedar, juniper or cypress, and animal fat.
By putting all the ingredients in the mummification process on a map, you can see how far Egyptian embalming went. Argan oil will come from North Africa, cypress and juniper oil can come from both southern Anatolia and the Iberian Peninsula. Dummer gum came from far away, obtained from a resin Shore Selanika, a tree that is endemic to the Moluccas in Indonesia today. and Embalmers elimi originated in the bark of certain trees growing in the present-day Philippines, but also in the forests of equatorial Africa at the end of the then known world. As Rejot states, “After all, Egyptian mummification probably played an important role in the beginning of the global network.”
“Mummification was a way of transforming the deceased from a human being into a divine being who could live forever”
Salima Ikram, an archaeologist at the American University in Cairo, Egypt
Physical anthropologists and paleopathologists from the University of Alcalá Jesus Herrín López, who have not intervened in this research, point out that, what they found inscribed, it is possible to relate the material that actually existed. “Up until now, in translating the meaning of a word (for example, “myrrh”), analogies were made on philosophical grounds, taking into account the extent to which we might, through literary descriptions and/or usage, come to know of that substance. knew about. that it was put in. This work provides physical evidence of how a word should be related to the appropriate substance”, he says. And another contribution stands out: “There are glasses that tell us on which part of the body they should be used, an issue that was not entirely clear before,” writes Herrerin from Luxor, where Jehuty will be next week. The tomb of the project opens to the public, the most ambitious study of Spanish Egyptology today.
Archaeologist Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo, who is not related to the work, highlighted the relevance of embalming to the ancient Egyptians in an email: “Mummification was a way of transforming the deceased from a human being into a divine being that can live forever. .The idea is that the soul can revive the body after its metamorphosis. Herrerin also highlights this: “Mummification is an essential requirement for completing a successful transit towards eternity Obviously, it was of great interest to the upper classes. But also the rest of the population. What happens is that access to the products used during this complex process was not available to everyone”.