Scientists have found some surprises while analyzing Egyptian mummification ingredients inside 31 ceramic vessels at a 2,600-year-old embalming workshop at Saqqara. The workshop was discovered just south of the pyramid of King Unas, a site of the oldest Pyramid texts, considered “the oldest collection of religious texts known to mankind.”
A study published in Nature indicates the ingredients identified with gas chromatography–mass spectrometry analysis originated from places around the world.
One of the researchers, biochemist Mahmoud M. Bahgat, said the study suggests something extraordinary. Choosing specific ingredients from faraway places means that the Egyptians may have advanced microbiology knowledge.
“This is really the fascinating part of it,” said Bahgat, a biochemist at the National Research Center in Cairo. “If Egyptians went that far to get these particular natural products, from these particular countries and not other countries in between, it means they meant it, it was not just done as a trial and error … They knew about microbiology.”
The study’s conclusion also suggests that ancient Egyptians had complex knowledge of chemical properties.
“The mummification specialists seem to have been aware of both the chemical properties and the bioactivity of the substances used and to have obtained complex knowledge about the preparation of different balms of particular ingredients,” the study states.
Saqqara was also the area where a mummy covered in gold, possibly the oldest ever at 4,300 years old, was recently announced.
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Ingredients found in the vessels, of which some were labeled:
- Dammar resin, possibly from tropical forests in India and Southeast Asia
- Natural bitumen from the Dead Sea
- Pistacia (cashew family) resin from the Mediterranean
- Elemi, from the same botanical family as Frankincense and Myrrh, possibly sourced from tropical Africa and Asia
Egyptologist Stuart Tyson Smith (not involved with the work) wasn’t convinced about the Dammar resin as it was one sample and noted something interesting in the Washington Post:
“Smith noted…that some of the chemical analyses could have been interpreted as evidence that Egyptians were importing plants found in the present-day Americas. ‘We know there was no cross-trade between old world and new world, so they rejected those as a hypothesis,’ Smith said.”
Video by History Origins:
Related: Why a Famous Egyptologist Visited Utah to Talk About Queen Nefertiti
The Purpose of Egyptian Mummification
The research from Saqqara suggests that the ancient Egyptians had complex knowledge of chemistry and microbiology. But what was the purpose of mummification? A new exhibition called the “Golden Mummies of Egypt,” at the UK’s Manchester Museum highlights widespread misconceptions about the process.
Rather than preserving the dead, the purpose of mummification was to “guide the deceased toward divinity,” according to the researchers. Curator Campbell Price told LiveScience that Victorian-era researchers got it wrong, thinking that ingredients like natron, a salty substance, were for preservation. Instead, natron was for spiritual cleansing rituals and also applied to statues of gods and mummies.
In ancient belief, any man or woman could aspire to experience a connection with divine consciousness.
“In Egyptian tradition, the gods were immortal. In order to attain an eternal presence among the gods the deceased had – in some sense – to become one. Dead men and women could become one with Osiris, the god of rebirth, and by Graeco-Roman times, deceased women could merge with Hathor, the Mistress of the West – where the sun set,” the exhibit website states.
Related: Egyptian Women’s Tattoos Depict Protective Deity at ‘The Place of Truth’
Anointing Mummies with Incense
Incense ingredients used in the mummification process were for “making the body divine and into a godly being,” Price suggests. For example, the Epyptian word for incense, senetjer, translates to “to make divine,” anointing the body spiritually.
A notable example he offered is the Three Wise Men who traveled from afar with sacred incense, following a star.
“Look at frankincense and myrrh — they’re in the Christian story of Jesus and were gifts from the three wise men,” Price said. “In ancient Egyptian history, we’ve found that they were also appropriate gifts for a god.”
When anointed, one could hope for a spiritual “resurrection,” a subject with relevant differences in world religion. In ancient beliefs such as the Egyptian Ausarian Resurrection or Buddhism, any human could strive for a mystical, spiritual connection with the divine – while alive – or at the time of death.
In contrast, later concepts about resurrection took on a literal, physical meaning. So, it’s not surprising that Victorian ideas of mummification were focused on the physical preservation of the body. However, the process may have been designed for a complex mystical and spiritual experience instead.
Video by Manchester Evening News:
Featured image: Temple of Osiris at Abydos. Caption via Flickr: Seti skillfully flips round pellets of incense into a censer in front of Horus.” Image via Wikimedia Commons by Steve F-E-Cameron. CC BY-SA 3.0.