New Discovery Shows Egyptians Experimented with Mummification 6,500 Years Ago
A groundbreaking new study published in the journal PLOS ONE has revealed the discovery of burial wrappings soaked in embalming agents at a Neolithic grave in Upper Egypt, which shows that ancient Egyptians were experimenting with or practising mummification at least 1,500 years earlier than previously suggested.
According to a news release in Live Science, the burial shrouds had been sitting in England's Bolton Museum for nearly a century after being dug up from the Badari and Mostagedda prehistoric burial grounds in the Nile Valley, which are dated to between 4,500 BC and 3,100 BC. The linens were originally wrapped around a number of well-preserved corpses, but scientists at the time had assumed that the hot, dry desert sand had naturally mummified the corpses.
While environmental conditions may have played a part, the new research, which involved a detailed analysis of fifty mummy wrappings, shows that the ancient Egyptians were producing mixtures from animal fats, tree resins, plant extracts, sugar, and natural petroleum, which contained powerful antibacterial elements and had embalming properties. The researchers also found chemical signatures of heating, suggesting these substances had been processed in antiquity.
Flax yarn from a burial wrapping, heavily saturated with tree resin, found at Egypt's Mostagedda cemetery, now kept at the Bolton Museum in Britain. Credit: Ron Oldfield and Jana Jones.
"It was a recipe that was relatively consistent [across all samples], and it was the same recipe, essentially, that was being used later in pharaonic, classical Egyptian mummification," said study researcher Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist at the University of York in England.
"If you can preserve the body, you can perhaps cheat death and survive into the next life. That was the late-Egyptian mindset, and it seems [earlier cultures] were already thinking on those sorts of lines," added Buckley.
Although the mummies of ancient Egypt are arguably the most famous mummies in the world. They are not the oldest. The Chinchorros of South America began artificially preserving their dead about 7,000 years ago and their mummies have become one of the wonders of Andean archaeology. Buckley noted that most cultures that practiced mummification, including the Egyptians and Chinchorros, lived in dry, desert climates, where bodies would be preserved naturally to some extent. He suspects people in these regions may have connected natural body preservation with cheating death, and may have later developed salves to aid in that process.
Egyptologists have previously maintained that mummification started in Egypt around 2600 BC, during the era known as the Old Kingdom. However, a number of finds have been turning up evidence that challenges this date. For example, resin-soaked wrappings on bodies dating to the 4 th millennium BC were discovered at Hierakonpolis. However, this is the first study to demonstrate the presence of resin-soaked lined centuries earlier than previously believed, and to confirm the composition of the embalming recipes.
Featured image: This Mostagedda funerary textile has an outer wrapping of animal skin. Credit: Ron Oldfield and Jana Jones