Ancient Egyptians started embalming their dead about 1,500 years earlier than archaeologists previously realized, according to chemical analysis of the funerary wrappings of a young man who died in Upper Egypt around 3600 BCE. University of York archaeologist Stephen Buckley and his colleagues identified embalming compounds in organic residues from the mummy’s linen wrappings.
That’s about 500 years before Egypt was even a unified country. It took until 3100 BCE for an Upper (southern) Egyptian ruler named Narmer to conquer Lower (northern) Egypt, merging the two into a single kingdom.
Egyptian embalming is thought to have gotten its start in that predynastic period, or even earlier, when people noticed that the arid heat of the sand tended to dry and preserve bodies buried in the desert. Eventually, the idea of preserving the body after death worked its way into Egyptian religious beliefs. When people began to bury the dead in rock tombs, away from the desiccating sand, they used chemicals like natron salt and plant-based resins for embalming.
Archaeologists had previously assumed that the Turin mummy was the product of natural desiccation, but it turns out his body had been treated with antibacterial compounds before burial. And the recipe is remarkably similar to the ones used by embalmers millennia later in the unified Egypt of the pharaohs.
A young man from Upper Egypt
“Very little was known about the mummy previously and this was the first interdisciplinary scientific study to investigate him,” Buckley told Ars Technica. The mummy has been part of the collection at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, since the museum’s director purchased it from an Egyptian dealer in 1901, and modern archaeologists aren’t even sure exactly where he was originally buried. Buckley says the original grave probably lay somewhere near modern-day Thebes (Luxor) or a site called Gebelein, about 40km (25 miles) to the south.
“These prehistoric bodies were wrapped in linen and rush matting, surrounded by grave goods such as personal items and bowls of food, and buried simply in pits dug out of the sand,” Macquarie University Egyptologist Jana Jones, the lead author of the new paper, told Ars. Some of those grave goods now reside at the museum with their late owner.
Previous researchers had suggested that the mummy hailed from the early predynastic period, but a combination of radiocarbon dating and detective work helped Buckley and his colleagues narrow it down further. Microscopic examination of the mummy’s wrappings revealed the spin direction of the fibers in the textiles.
“The results meant the mummy could not date later than 3500 BC because the textile technology changed after this date. So despite the radiocarbon dates of 3650 to 3380 BC for the mummy, we could narrow the date down to 3650-3500 BC by using all the science available,” Buckley told .
And a visual examination of the wear patterns on his teeth also indicated that the dead man was between 20 and 30 years old when he died (previous studies had suggested an age closer to 40). “We cannot be sure of his social status, although he does seem to have been in reasonable health apart from what appears to be a healed skull fracture he survived,” Buckley told Ars. “Future research may provide new information, of course, but so far this is as much as we can say.”
An ancient recipe
Buckley and his colleagues analyzed organic residues from the mummy’s wrappings with a technique called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, in which vaporized chemical compounds are sorted by their mass so scientists can analyze the chemical composition of a sample.
“The GC-MS is able to separate the constituents of complex mixtures and provide a chemical fingerprint for each of those constituents, allowing us then to identify each constituent, and from that determine (not always possible!) the natural products constituting the organic extract—i.e., the embalming agent applied to the mummy,” explained Buckley.
Museum mummies sometimes get treated with a barrage of pesticides and chemical preservatives, including drying oils like linseed, tree resins, and cellulose-based treatments. But because the Turin mummy hadn’t received any treatment (he has just been stored in a special case to protect against moisture and microbes), Buckley and his colleagues wouldn’t have to account for modern contamination in their study.
They found that the wrappings were saturated with a mixture of plant oil, an aromatic plant extract, a gum or sugar, and heated conifer resin. Interestingly, conifers aren’t native to Egypt, so that material would have had to be imported, most likely from the nearest source in modern-day Israel. So this hints at predynastic Egyptian trade networks. But the significant thing is that those ingredients were essentially the same ones used to treat the bodies of New Kingdom royalty 2500 years later. These compounds helped ensure that decay-causing bacteria couldn’t recolonize the body once it had been dried out.
Of course, those antibacterial embalming agents were just one step in what had, by the New Kingdom, become a very complex 70-day process, with the practical work of embalming interwoven with ritual. The pharaohs would have had their organs removed and placed in special containers called canopic jars, for instance, and the body would have been dried with natron salt before being wrapped and treated with embalming compounds like the ones on the Turin mummy.
The Turin mummy seems to have kept all his organs, and it’s not likely he was treated with natron salt, but he was buried in hot, dry desert sand, which would have kept his body desiccated.
“During Pharaonic times the bodies of the elite were buried in tombs and so no longer in direct contact with the hot, dry sand. As a result of this bodies would have decomposed quite rapidly had they not removed the internal organs and used a drying agent to remove water from the body,” explained Buckley. “Hence a more elaborate procedure was needed compared to the burials of the prehistoric/Predynastic period.”
The origins of a religion
The findings support an earlier study by Buckley and his colleagues, in which they found evidence of very similar embalming compounds on fragments of linen wrappings that had come from a predynastic burial in Mostagedda, about 374km (232 miles) north of the Turin mummy’s long-lost grave. Some of those wrappings dated to as early as 4300 BCE (about 600 years older than the Turin mummy) and others dated to as late as 3100 BCE, but none of them were still associated with an actual mummy. When the Mostagedda burials were excavated in the 1920s, archaeologists often considered the human remains themselves unimportant, so the mummies remained in Egypt while the textiles went to England for study. The current study is the first one to identify predynastic embalming materials in an intact mummy.
“Though the mummy is not the earliest burial to reveal the formative embalming agents dating back to 4300 BCE, it is the first intact, surviving individual, to reveal what would become a key part of the iconic process that would later become Pharaonic Egyptian mummification,” Buckley told Ars. “He provides a vital and symbolic link.”
And the presence of the same embalming recipe at burials hundreds of mile apart during Egypt’s predynastic phase could tell archaeologists things about the development of ancient Egyptian culture. When Narmer united the two kingdoms around 3100 BCE, Upper and Lower Egypt had similar but distinct languages, cultures, and belief systems—that’s why, for instance, the ancient Egyptian pantheon as we know it seems to have so many deities with overlapping roles or seemingly conflicting backstories. But these finds may suggest a commonality.
They may also shift our understanding of when ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife began to take shape. Without written texts, the way people bury their dead offers the best insight into what they believed about life and death. “The findings of this and the 2014 study suggest that the concept of an afterlife, with the physical preservation of the body at its heart, was already developing some 1500 years earlier than previously thought,” Buckley told Ars.