Oldest Known Mummification Manual Reveals How Egyptians Embalmed the Face

Prior to the find, researchers had only identified two ancient texts detailing the enigmatic preservation process

A Manual for Preserving the Dead
Ancient embalmers dipped a piece of red linen in a plant-based concoction before applying the cloth to the deceased's face. Ida Christensen / University of Copenhagen

Egyptian mummies have fascinated the public for centuries. But until recently, researchers had only identified two ancient documents detailing the embalming process. Now, reports Amanda Kooser for CNET, a newly discovered, 3,500-year-old manual may shed more light on mummification’s mysteries.

Per a statement, Sofie Schiødt, an Egyptologist at the University of Copenhagen, uncovered the guide while translating a portion of the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg for her doctoral thesis. The nearly 20-foot-long manuscript, which focuses mainly on herbal medicine and skin conditions, contains a short section outlining embalming methods, including how to preserve a dead person’s face.

“The text reads like a memory aid, so the intended readers must have been specialists who needed to be reminded of these details, such as unguent recipes and uses of various types of bandages,” says Schiødt in the statement. “Some of the simpler processes, [for example] the drying of the body with natron, have been omitted from the text.”

The second-longest ancient Egyptian medical papyrus, the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg dates back to 1450 B.C., making it older than comparable mummification manuals by more than 1,000 years. As Mindy Weisberger writes for Live Science, Schiødt translated the double-sided text using high-resolution photographs, which helped streamline the process.

“This way we can move displaced fragments around digitally, as well as enhance colors to better read passages where the ink is not so well-preserved,” she tells Live Science. “It also aids in reading difficult signs when you can zoom in on the high-res photos.”

Previous research on the ancient medical text has been complicated by the fact that it’s split into multiple pieces. One is housed in the university’s Papyrus Carlsberg Collection, while another is held at the Louvre Museum in Paris. These two segments were previously housed in private collections, and the whereabouts of several other sections of the papyrus remain unknown, according to the statement.

A fragment of the nearly 20-foot long papyrus scroll
A fragment of the nearly 20-foot long papyrus scroll The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection, University of Copenhagen

Among the insights offered by the newly identified manual is a list of ingredients for a plant-based embalming concoction used to coat pieces of red linen.

“The red linen is then applied to the dead person’s face in order to encase it in a protective cocoon of fragrant and anti-bacterial matter,” says Schiødt in the statement.

Brooke Taylor of CTV News reports that this process—like many covered in the manual—was repeated every four days. In between these intervals, embalmers would cloak the corpse with cloth and aromatics-infused straw to keep insects and scavengers at bay.

The entire mummification procedure took 70 days to complete, with the first 35 days focused on dehydrating the body and the next 35 on wrapping it.

According to the Smithsonian Institution, specially trained priests began by removing the brain, stomach, liver and other organs (aside from the heart, which was left in place as “the center of a person’s being and intelligence”). Next, they dried out the body with a type of salt called natron before encasing it in layers of linen and resin. The face embalming process took place during this second wrapping period, notes the statement.

On the 68th day, workers placed the mummy in a coffin; the final two days of the process were dedicated to rituals that facilitated the deceased’s safe journey to the afterlife.

As Joshua J. Mark pointed out for World History Encyclopedia in 2017, medical papyrus scrolls like the recently discovered one often had two sides—the recto (front) and the verso (the back). Scribes would record most information on the front of the scroll but had the option of including additional details, or even other texts entirely, on the back. The ancient Egyptians typically preserved these manuscripts in the Per-Ankh, a section of temples that doubled as both a library and learning center.

The Louvre and the University of Copenhagen plan to jointly publish their respective fragments of the papyrus in 2022.

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