Archaeologists long believed that ritual mummification in Egypt didn’t really start until around 2600 B.C., around the time the Great Pyramid at Giza was constructed. But Victoria Gill at the BBC reports a new study pushes that timeline back much, much earlier, indicating that the Egyptians were not only ritually mummifying people around 4000 B.C., but by that point, they had already cracked the recipe for their embalming resin.
The discovery wasn’t a random find. Egypt is so dry that many bodies just naturally mummify after burial. So that’s what archaeologist Stephen Buckley of the University of York believed was the case when he set out to test burial linens dating from 4500 B.C. to 3100 B.C. found in pit graves at sites in Egypt known as Badari and Mostagedda. When the team analyzed the linens, however, they found chemical traces of the resins and oils used in ritual mummification, indicating that the practice was over a thousand years older than previously thought.
That was back in 2014. After they published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE, they wanted to learn more about ancient embalming techniques and confirm their findings. The problem was, many mummies of that period stored in museums have undergone conservation treatments that wiped out or polluted any chemical traces left by embalmers. Luckily, one famous mummy that matched the time period of interest, Mummy S. 293 (RCGE 16550), on display at Turin’s Egypt Museum since the turn of the 20th century, had never been treated. While researchers long assumed it had been naturally mummified by Egypt’s heat, Buckley and a team led by Egyptologist Jana Jones of Macquarie University decided to pay its linens a closer look, using carbon dating, chemical analysis, genetic investigation and microscopic analysis, to learn all they could. The results were published today in The Journal of Archaeological Science.
In the study, the researchers found that the body—a 20-30 year old male nicknamed "Fred," who died between 3700-3500 B.C.—had, indeed, been embalmed. “Having identified very similar embalming recipes in our previous research on prehistoric burials, this latest study provides both the first evidence for the wider geographical use of these balms and the first ever unequivocal scientific evidence for the use of embalming on an intact, prehistoric Egyptian mummy,” Buckley says in a press release.
The findings have some interesting implications for Egypt’s prehistory. The fact that the ancient embalming agents were found in areas far apart suggests Egypt was already coalescing into a single culture hundreds of years before it emerged as a nation-state. “[B]eing notably similar to prehistoric burials dating to as early as 4300 B.C. to 3100 B.C. from Mostagedda, it offers the first indication that the embalming recipe was being used over a wider geographical area at a time when the concept of a pan-Egyptian identity was supposedly still developing,” Buckley tells George Dvorsky of Gizmodo.
Writing for the Conversation, Jones explains that the use of resins not native to Egypt but found in the eastern Mediterranean also shows that long distance trade routes stretched much deeper in southern Egypt than previously known.
So what did a prehistoric Egyptian funerary treatment look like? While the chemical analysis gives us the rough outlines, the exact components to ancient embalming remain unknown. According to the study, though, a plant oil was mixed a ‘balsam’/aromatic plant extract, which was combined with a plant gum or sugar, then mixed with non-native conifer resin, the stuff imported from the eastern Mediterranean. This mixture would have been slathered on the body after its organs were removed and it was put in salt to dry out. Finally, the mummy was wrapped in linen and placed in its final resting place to enjoy the afterlife, and hopefully, avoid being made into fertilizer.