The Surprising Substances Ancient Egyptians Used to Mummify the Dead

An analysis of 2,500-year-old embalming ingredients suggests some of them came from far-off places

Artistic illustration of priest in underground chamber
An artistic illustration of Egyptian embalmers in the underground embalming workshop at Saqqara Nikola Nevenov / LMU

Archaeologists have long marveled at ancient Egyptians’ sophisticated mummification processes. Now, thanks to biochemical analyses of 2,500-year-old ingredients, they know more about the types of substances Egyptian embalmers used to preserve human bodies for the afterlife.

From individual mummies and ancient texts, researchers had made some hunches about the compounds Egyptians used to mummify the dead. But the 2016 discovery of an underground embalming workshop at the ancient burial ground of Saqqara, south of Cairo, has now unraveled even more of the mysteries surrounding the careful preparation of the dead.

The multi-room workshop, located near the pyramid of Unas, contained more than 100 ceramic beakers and bowls that still held the remnants of various substances dating to 664 to 525 B.C.E. during Egypt’s 26th Dynasty. Some of the vessels even had notes and instructions about their contents and how to use them.

Embalming workshop vessels
Archaeologists discovered more than 100 ceramic beakers, bowls and other vessels in an underground embalming workshop at Saqqara. M. Abdelghaffar / Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, University of Tübingen

After analyzing the remnants of 31 vessels, researchers were able to identify several concoctions ancient Egyptians used to embalm the dead, including animal fats, beeswax, pistachio resin, bitumen and several plant oils. The team published the results of their analysis in Nature on Wednesday.

“It’s like a time machine, really,” says Joann Fletcher, an archaeologist at University of York who was not involved with the project, to Maddie Burakoff of the Associated Press (AP). “It’s allowed us to not quite see over the shoulders of the ancient embalmers, but probably as close as we’ll ever get.”

Embalmers used the substances for different purposes before wrapping the body, per the researchers. Some hard materials, like beeswax and resins, removed moisture from the skin, while plant oils helped mask the odors emanating from the bodies. Other ingredients prevented the proliferation of fungi and bacteria.

“They… knew what substances they needed to put on the skin—antibacterial, antifungal substances—to keep the skin best possibly preserved without having any microbiological background, without even knowing about bacteria,” says study co-author Philipp Stockhammer, an archaeologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, to CNN’s Katie Hunt. “This enormous knowledge was accumulated over centuries.”

The ancient Egyptians also used these substances strategically to preserve specific body parts—for instance, embalmers only used castor oil and pistachio resin for the head.

Egyptian excavation site at Saqqara
The excavation site at Saqqara S. Beck / Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, University of Tübingen

Archaeologists also determined that a concoction called “antiu,” which was previously translated to myrrh or incense, was actually a combination of different ingredients, including animal fats, cedar oil, juniper oil and cypress oil.

One of the most surprising findings was that embalmers used substances from far-flung sites, including from thousands of miles away in Southeast Asia. This suggests the Egyptian embalming industry was “a driver toward early globalization and global trade,” says Stockhammer to Reuters’ Will Dunham.

Ancient Egyptians went to great lengths to preserve the dead, believing that “their spiritual body would continue to exist in an afterlife very similar to their living world,” per the Australian Museum. Archaeologists believe the entire mummification process took roughly 70 days and consisted of several stages—from removing organs to drying out the body to wrapping it with hundreds of yards of linen. The process, which also involved many rituals and prayers, was costly and thus typically reserved for elites, nobility and officials.

“The ancient Egyptians have been separated from us through time and space, yet we still have this connection,” says Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at The American University in Cairo who was not involved with the project, to the AP. “Human beings all throughout history have been scared of death.”

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