Mix together oil, sugar and tree resin. Add one salted corpse. Stir until mummified.
That’s pretty much the last steps of the mysterious and long-sought recipe for mummifying human bodies used by Egyptian mummy-makers for at least 4,000 years. New research on this old practice also pushes its origin back about 1,500 years from the current accepted beginning of this end-of-life-start-of-afterlife ritual that has made Egyptian archeology so interesting and spawned so many horror movies. What was this secret recipe for mummification and why did it work so well that it was unchanged for 2,000 years?
“It was the drying and the embalming recipe that were key to preservation.”
In an interview with the BBC, University of York archeologist Dr. Stephen Buckley describes how his team uncovered the secret mummification process of the ancient Egyptians that was published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science. It had been accepted that natural mummification had long occurred due to Egypt’s dry environment and chemical mummification or embalming was developed around 2600 BCE when the natural method was no longer fast enough for common bodies nor ritualistic enough for the rich and famous.
Buckley sought to analyze the oldest mummies and the linens wrapping them to accurately date the origin of the process, but virtually all of the remains and cloths had undergone treatments by museums and collectors to preserve them. In a lucky break (especially when dealing with mummies can be so unlucky), Buckley was introduced to Mummy S. 293 (RCGE 16550) at Turin’s Egypt Museum – the remains of an unidentified 20-to-30-year-old male dating back to 3700-3500 BCE that had not been treated.
“Until now, we’ve not had a prehistoric mummy that has actually demonstrated – so perfectly through the chemistry – the origins of what would become the iconic mummification that we know all about.”
Buckley and a team led by Egyptologist Jana Jones of Macquarie University used carbon dating, chemical analysis, genetic investigation and microscopic analysis on Mummy S. 293’s burial linens to determine that the success of the Egyptian mummification process was a fast, forced drying using natural salts, followed by coating the body with the secret fluid that sealed it and killed bacteria. The recipe for the secret fluid consisted of sesame oil (or some other plant oil), root extract (possibly from bulrushes, the wetland plants more commonly known as cattails), a sugar gum (possibly from acacia, an African shrub) and resin (from a conifer (cone-bearing) tree brought from the Mediterranean area). The resin was apparently the key – having both antibacterial properties as well as being an excellent sealer.
You may have noticed that the mummification “recipe” contains no exact measurements of oil, gum and resin for an average 100-pound body. That’s because this new dating of its origin predates writing and the chemical analysis used by Buckley can’t provide that kind of accuracy. However, the fact that this pushes the first manmade mummies back 1,500 years and shows that it worked well enough to be kept the same for 2,000 years is significant, as Professor Tom Higham, Deputy Director Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, says in the press release:
“There are very few mummies of this ‘natural’ type available for analysis. Our radiocarbon dating shows it dates to the early Naqada phase of Egyptian prehistory, substantially earlier than the classic Pharaonic period, and this early age offers us an unparalleled glimpse into funerary treatment before the rise of the state.”
“Egyptian mummification was at the heart of their culture. The afterlife was just a continuation of enjoying life. But they needed the body to be preserved in order for the spirit to have a place to reside.”
Is it time to remove the mummies from stuffy museums or cramped storage warehouses and take them back to their homeland where they can enjoy the afterlife?