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Researchers analyzed embalming material from the neck of this ancient Egyptian mummy, to understand Egyptian skin and mummification.            Source: Frédérique Vincent, ethnographic conservator / ACS

New Tech Reveals Origin Of Egyptian Mummies’ Skin Color

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Just how much can you learn from the color of a person’s skin? Well, in the case of Egyptian mummies, it is now turning out to be quite a lot. Researchers have worked out a non-intrusive way to map the origins of ancient Egyptian embalming materials, and the composition of the substance that causes deep black coloration of many mummies’ skin is now revealing hitherto unknown geographic data. The study does not say whether these Egyptians were or were not dark skinned naturally, that’s another debate, but according to the latest high-tech analysis, many Egyptian mummies’ deep black skin color not only comes from tar but we now know where that tar came from.

Ancient Egyptian Skin Analysis: Without Damaging The Remains

Learning the secrets of ancient mummies without damaging their fragile remains has always been the number one challenge for Egyptologists. Recently, a team of French researchers have published a new research article in ACS' Analytical Chemistry about a new non-penetrative way of analyzing ancient Egyptian skin by focusing on the “embalming bitumen” that gives mummies their dark colored skin.

This line of research was born in a 2016 paper published by the Royal Society in which lead author Professor K. A. Clark from the University of Bristol said mummification was practiced in ancient Egypt for more than 3000 years. The researchers discovered that the use of organic balms was a later introduction into burial customs, necessitated by more humid burial environments, especially in underground tombs.

The ancient mummification process, a mythological interpretation of Anubis and others working on a pharaoh mummy, and how certain balms darkened the Egyptian skin of the mummy. (Matrioshka / Adobe Stock)

The ancient mummification process, a mythological interpretation of Anubis and others working on a pharaoh mummy, and how certain balms darkened the Egyptian skin of the mummy. ( Matrioshka / Adobe Stock)

Using mass spectrometry, the French team analyzed 39 mummies dating from 3200 BC to 395 AD and their study showed how petroleum bitumen (or natural asphalt) caused the dark Egyptian skin color of many mummies. In their study they state that “bitumen was used in 50% of New Kingdom to Late Period mummies, rising to 87% of Ptolemaic Roman Period mummies.” And they concluded that the application of black/dark brown balms to bodies “was deliberate after the New Kingdom reflecting changing funerary beliefs and shifts in religious ideology .”

An Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) spectrometer, which was used to forensically analyze Egyptian skin on mummies to understand how they were treated during the mummification process. (Przemyslaw "Tukan" Grudnik / CC BY-SA 3.0)

An Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) spectrometer, which was used to forensically analyze Egyptian skin on mummies to understand how they were treated during the mummification process. (Przemyslaw "Tukan" Grudnik / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

A New Scientific Approach To Understanding Egyptian Skin Color

Building on the 2016 paper a recent release from the American Chemical Society (ACS) explains that the embalming materials used by ancient Egyptians was a complex mixture of natural compounds such as “sugar gum, beeswax, fats, coniferous resins, and variable amounts of bitumen.” Better known as asphalt, or more generally as tar, bitumen is a highly viscous form of black petroleum that is made from fossilized plants and algae.

The team of researchers, led by Dr Charles Dutoit and Dr Didier Gourier, was recently funded by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche and the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France to work out a new, less-destructive, technique of analyzing bitumen samples from ancient mummies.

The new method is known as “Electron Paramagnetic Resonance” (EPR), and tests bitumen samples for “Vanadyl porphyrins and carbonaceous radicals.” For those of you that didn’t already know, these are two of the many components that constitute bitumen. They are formed during the decomposition of photosynthetic life. And according to the researchers these two particular chemical signatures provide information on “the presence, origin and processing of bitumen in the embalming material.”

Liquid bitumen, which the latest research on Egyptian skin on mummies has discovered to have been widely used and accounts for mummy skin color. (andras_csontos / Adobe Stock)

Liquid bitumen, which the latest research on Egyptian skin on mummies has discovered to have been widely used and accounts for mummy skin color. ( andras_csontos / Adobe Stock)

Egyptian Skin Color On Mummies And Bitumen Trade

This new less-destructive analysis method, i.e. EPR, was tested on bitumen samples obtained from an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, two human mummies and four animal mummies all dating to 744-30 BC. EPR yielded a set of chemical results that were then compared to reference samples. This comparative analysis informed the researchers that the relative amounts of these two specific compounds “could differentiate between bitumen of marine origin (such as from the Dead Sea) and land-plant origin (from a tar pit).”

Behind every treasure discovered in ancient Egypt there are endless stories of the producers, traders, transporters that passed on the raw materials that were ultimately used for mummification. Now, with EPR, Egyptologists are able to discern the geographic and environmental origins of bitumen samples taken from mummies. And this opens up a whole new avenue of research into ancient bitumen trade networks.

Top image: Researchers analyzed embalming material from the neck of this ancient Egyptian mummy, to understand Egyptian skin and mummification.            Source: Frédérique Vincent, ethnographic conservator / ACS

By Ashley Cowie

Ancient Origins Tours will be investigating the Qasr el-Sagha temple, the Egyptian Labyrinth, and Amenemhat III’s pyramid at Hawara as part of a very special expedition in Egypt in September 2021. Why not join us for this unique experience that will bring you closer than ever before to Egypt’s first female ruler, whose story is now being told for the first time. The trip will include writer and author Andrew Collins, who will be speaking extensively about Sobekneferu and her world.

For more information on Ancient Origins Egypt Tour click here .

Comments

Will watch and see how far this goes with such ancient Egyptians being light-skinned, vs dark (black)-skinned.  And of the (said) dynastic Egyptians before the time of Alexander the Great and his Ptolemaic Macedonian light-skins invaded and took control of Egypt from 3330s-40 BC.

Ashley:

As always, a great article!

The debate between ‘Eurocentrism’ and ‘Afro-Centrism’ in regards to the inhabitants of ancient Egypt, continues to be a source of contention, especially in today’s racially polarized society.

As I always told my students in my ‘Ancient History’ course for thirty-years; ancient Egypt like modern-day America, was a diverse & cosmopolitan society, in regards to ‘race’ from its beginnings, as well into its mythological renditions of HORUS, usually described as a ‘Black Man’ while his 'brother SET’ was generally characterized as having ‘red-hair.’

Naturally, in the days of Sir Flinders Petrie, the ‘Father of Modern Egyptology,’ it was assumed that all ancient Egyptians were of European ancestry, hence the ‘Eurocentric View’ was the dominate theory as to the ancestral origins of the Egyptian people, whereas today, it has become popular to portray or to describe ALL ancient inhabitants of Egypt to have been ‘Black’ in skin color, hence the 'Afro-Centric View,’ as emphatically advocated by present-day Black activists such as ‘Al Sharpton’ in America, without any proof, but his own radical bias and prejudices towards Whites.

Egypt’s oldest mummified body (in this case naturally ‘desicated’), that of 'Gebelein Man,’ referred to frequently as ‘Ginger,’ because of the tufts of red hair originally found on his skull, dating to the ‘Late Pre-Dynastic Period’ of Egyptian history, ca. 3500 BC, is an example of a potential Caucasian population residing within early Egypt.

Also, the famed frescoe or mural of ‘Queen Hetepheres’ of the 5th Dynasty, is shown with ‘blond hair,’ and is frequently referred to as the earliest example of ‘blondism’ in the world, though some believe it to be in reality a ‘blonde wig’ rather than her natural hair color.

Famed Pharoah Rameses II of the 19th Dynasty (died ca. 1213 BC), on contemporary frescoes executed at his orders at Karnak, show him definitively with blonde hair, while his actual mummified remains on display in the Egyptian Museum at Cairo, also reveal remnants of ‘blonde hair’ on his skull.

The arch-enemies of the Egytians for centuries, the Libyans or ancestors of the present-day Berber tribes of North Africa, are acutely portrayed as ‘fair-skinned with blue-eyes’ on Egyptian frescoes, such as those illustrated at Beni-Hasan, dating to the Middle Kingdom. Also, over the centuries, the Egyptians intermarried with the ‘Mitanni’ or Hurrian people of Caucasian ancestry, whom Tutankhamun and others shared DNA, whereas Pharoah Thutmose III of the Eighteenth Dynasty, generally bears African-type racial features.

‘Skin-Color’ and ‘Ethnicity’ of the Ancient Egyptians will no doubt continue to be a topic of debate for years to come.

Dr. Dan

 

Pete Wagner's picture

They won’t date the tar itself, for fear they'll give away the whole sham.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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