A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Mummification Before the Pharaohs
Analysis of funerary wrappings that have been stored in Britain’s Bolton Museum since the 1930s has established that Egyptians cooked up recipes to mummify the dead as early as 4300 B.C.—1,500 years earlier than previously thought. The linen wrappings came from cemeteries in the Badari region of Upper Egypt and date to well before the beginning of rule by pharaohs.
Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist at the University of York, found that the wrappings were permeated with a mixture of pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum or sugar, a plant oil or fat, and a natural petroleum source. “The recipes being used were essentially the same embalming recipes that were used 3,000 years later,” says Buckley, “when the art of mummification was at its height.” Buckley’s analysis also revealed that early Egyptians were part of a far-reaching trade network. The chemical signature of the pine oil in the embalming mixture suggests that its closest source would have been in modern-day Turkey.
Intriguingly, the earliest wrappings include chemical components typical of sea sponges. Buckley argues that sponges may have been included in the recipe because they have the ability to regenerate after a part is removed, and Egyptians likely had observed that. Rebirth was the goal of mummification in the pharaonic period, and it seems that it was in earlier times as well.
Interestingly, these early attempts at mummification only involved wrapping the head, hands, and feet. Later on, to improve preservation, it became common practice to wrap the entire body after removing the internal organs and adding natron, a salt that helped dry out the remains.
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