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New research on Egyptian embalming unravels mysteries of mummification

The mummifying substances also shed light on an embalming trade economy.

(CN) — Scientists now have a clearer picture of the processes involved in ancient Egyptian mummification thanks to analyses of an ancient embalming workshop at the Saqqara necropolis near Cairo.

In a study published in Nature on Wednesday, a group of interdisciplinary researchers who analyzed 31 ceramic vessels from the workshop describe what they learned about Egyptian embalming and mummification processes, including the different "recipes" of chemical mixtures used for embalming different body parts.

Dr. Maxime Rageot from the University of Tübingen, Germany, led the group.

The various pots were labeled with either a direction for use or what the vessel should contain. For example, "Embalm at day 34" and "substance for the head." These markings coupled with chemical analysis of the workshop and ceramics allowed researchers to identify materials such as oils, tars, animal fats and resins, including juniper oil and tar, cypress oil and tar, beeswax, castor oil, and canarium resin.

Interestingly, these materials were not native to Egypt but had to be imported. Some products came from across the Mediterranean, while others, like juniper oils, came from the rainforests of Southeast Asia, which the researchers said demonstrates the role mummification had in promoting long-distance trade.

Their findings also solidified previous theories that asphalt from the Dead Sea was exported to Egypt for bitumen — specifically for mummification.

"We should be aware that this is not a direct trade but something along the road that was already established. Egyptian embalming requested more and more of these resins really instigated the intensification of this exchange," explained Rageot. 

The Egyptian preservation processes have long been of scientific interest. Now, scientists can work to understand the ratios of the mixtures that not only preserved skin but had antiseptic and antibacterial properties. This discovery could also help bridge the gap between ancient Egyptian practices and modern medicine. 

Study co-author Mahmoud M Bahgat from the National Research Centre in Cairo, Egypt, noted at the press conference that the world is suffering from antibiotic resistance and spending billions of dollars trying to find alternative antibiotics.

"I think if we get back to this time and try to learn from the Egyptians why they use particular materials to preserve against bacterial infection, we might come up with new antibiotics," said Bahgat. "You'll see Egyptology by chemistry, but at the end of the day, you might come up with completely different applications that might have implications on other biomedical research." 

"This is just the beginning, not the end, of the collaboration," Bahgat said.

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