The manual for Egyptian mummification

It appeared in more than a hundred vessels in the city of the dead of Saqqara. Their analysis made it possible to identify the substances used to embalm them. Many of them are inscribed with instructions. The manual for Egyptian mummification was preserved in these vessels.

They were known to use beeswax, Dead Sea bitumen, cedar oils. Also natron (sodium carbonate), a salt for preserving corpses. The proportions were not known. And the specific substances to which some Egyptian terms referred were still to be identified. These instructions have appeared on ceramics.

The manual for Egyptian mummification was on some pots at Saqqara.
The manual for Egyptian mummification was in some vessels at Saqqara.

Chemical knowledge

They used sophisticated material analysis techniques, such as mass spectrometry and gas chromatography. Thus they detected the substances used by the embalmers. The best part of the finding is that dozens of the jars have instructions. They are hieroglyphic inscriptions that tell what was inside or how to use them. The manual for Egyptian mummification survived in time.

On one of the vessels, for example, it is emphasized that its contents are for use on the head. First the brain was removed. And a mixture of pistachio resin, cedar pitch and cypress oil was applied. Also essence of elemi. The latter is still used for colds.

Mummification was a true Egyptian art.
Mummification was a true Egyptian art.

Ingredients revealed

For the skin and to be applied on the third day, another vessel contained heated beeswax and animal fat. The whole embalming process lasted 70 days. There is a compound based on castor oil, used as an antiseptic and fungicide. There are also natural adhesives to embalm the corpse with linen. And specific formulas to treat the liver and stomach once emptied.

The work, published in Naturefinally revealed the compounds used in the process. University of Tübingen (Germany) researcher Susanne Beck is director of the excavation. She says that “the names of many of the embalming ingredients have been known since ancient Egyptian writings were deciphered. But until now, we could only guess what substances were behind each name.”

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