Scientists Just Mummified a Human Leg to Test Ancient Egyptian Techniques

It took 208 days for Swiss scientists to mummify a fresh leg using natron

Dead Body
RG Images / STOCK4B/Stock4B/Corbis

Mummification isn’t exactly modern, but ancient Egyptian techniques for preserving corpses continue to fascinate archaeologists and scientists alike. Now, reports LiveScience’s Tanya Lewis, a team of scientists has tried their hand at the old-fashioned embalming tactic by using Egyptian methods to mummify a fresh human leg.

Recognizing the potential importance of a better understanding of mummification to disciplines like forensic medicine and bioarchaeology, the study’s authors wondered why few people have attempted to recreate the methods used by ancient Egyptians to mummify their dead. So, reports Lewis, they decided to try to create a mummy themselves.

After obtaining two fresh human legs from a cadaver donated to research, they conducted a comparative study. They used a “dry heat” method to “naturally” mummify one leg. For the other leg, they used a substance called natron, a soda ash and sodium bicarbonate mix that occurs in nature and was used for mummies by ancient Egyptians.

Ancient Greek texts say that the ancient Egyptians used natron to dry and preserve bodies after removing organs from the dead, writes Lewis. Rather than undergo a complicated organ removal, the scientists opted for a leg instead. They placed a layer of natron beneath the leg on a pine board, covered it with more natron and a hood to mitigate fumes, then watched, waited, and measured the results.

Their attempt to mummify a leg with dry heat was a wash — the scientists write they had to stop that test within a week “due to unexpected lack of mummification progress.” But things worked out better with the natron-preserved leg: 208 days later, they had a mummy.

Though researcher Christina Papageorgopoulou tells Lewis that mummification in a Swiss lab likely took much longer than it would in the dry deserts of ancient Egypt, she’s happy with the results. “It’s more or less state-of-the-art documentation on how the ancient Egyptians mummified their bodies,” she told Lewis. Papageorgopoulou and her team hope their study will be “of foremost interests” to other disciplines at the intersection of science, history, and the human body.

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