In 2018, archaeologists working at an ancient burial site in Egypt announced that they had made an incredible discovery: a mummification workshop with labeled jars and containers for the oils and balms used to preserve bodies for the afterlife. In the first analysis of this type, researchers have identified the chemical contents of those vessels. The results have turned up some surprises (Nature 2023, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05663-4).
The Saqqâra site south of Cairo covers over 3,000 years of human civilization. Host to more than a dozen pyramids, an underground cemetery, and Christian monasteries, it is one of the oldest and most constantly used burial places in Egypt. The area, linked to the ancient city of Memphis, has been a boon for archaeologists. Already this year, archaeologists announced what could be the oldest and most complete mummy yet discovered and unveiled a 16 m long intact papyrus scroll from 50 BCE.
Researchers from Ludwig Maximilian University Münich and the University of Tübingen traveled to Egypt to analyze the mummification recipes in collaboration with colleagues at the National Research Centre in Cairo. They used gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to identify the many different compounds in the jars, which dated from the sixth and seventh century BCE.
The work helps researchers put ancient Egyptian texts about the embalming process into context, according to Salima Ikram, head of the Egyptology unit at the American University in Cairo, who was not involved in the work. “It’s really exciting,” she says. In the past, researchers tried to piece together the chemical concoctions that ancient Egyptians used by examining descriptions of the recipes combined with samples from mummified remains. But because the vessels at Saqqâra are labeled, those recipes can be confirmed.
The analysis of the substances in the jars has already changed previous identifications of the components of the balms and unguents. For example, researchers now say the balm called antiu was not myrrh or frankincense, as previously had been assumed. Instead, it was a mix of cedar, juniper, and cypress oils, which have insecticidal and antimicrobial properties. Animal fats completed the formulation. The team also used chemical markers to show that some components came from places far from Egypt. For example, dammaradienol (shown) helped identify dammar oil, which comes from a tree that only grows in tropical forest regions.
“We are now coming closer to understanding the technology of mummification, the breadth of knowledge, and the profundity of ancient Egyptians’ knowledge of chemicals and different materials,” Ikram says. The study reveals that the trade network that supplied some materials from Africa and Southeast Asia “seems even more complex and extensive than we thought,” she adds. Experts at the time may have traded information about chemical properties—as well as the oils and resins themselves—across continents thousands of years ago.