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Scientists reveal ancient embalming 'recipe'

prehistoric mummy dating back to 3700-3500 BC

Photo: Dr Stephen Buckley

Scientists have uncovered a prehistoric embalming ‘recipe’ – indicating ancient Egyptians pioneered a key funeral ritual 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.

Forensic tests on a prehistoric mummy – previously thought to have been naturally preserved in hot desert sand – have revealed that the body dating back to 3700-3500 BC, was in fact embalmed, using sophisticated techniques.

New findings have revealed that the mummy had been been wrapped in cloth strips impregnated with a mixture of plant oil, heated conifer resin, aromatic plant extract and a plant gum/sugar.

coniferPhoto by ALP STUDIO on Unsplash

The embalming ‘recipe’ contained antibacterial agents, which experts say was used in similar proportions to those employed by Egyptian embalmers when their mummification skills were at a peak, some 2,500 years later.

The tests were carried out on the mummified remains of a man who is thought to have been aged between 20 and 30 years old when he died almost 6,000 years ago. The mummy has been housed in the Egyptian Museum in Turin since 1901.

Experts from from the universities of York, Macquarie, Oxford, Warwick, Trento and Turin worked together on the research.

Archaeological chemist and mummification expert, Dr Stephen Buckley, from the University of York said: “Having identified very similar embalming recipes in our previous research on prehistoric burials, this latest study provides both the first evidence for the wider geographical use of these balms and the first ever unequivocal scientific evidence for the use of embalming on an intact, prehistoric Egyptian mummy.

“Moreover, this preservative treatment contained antibacterial constituents in the same proportions as those used in later ‘true’ mummification. As such, our findings represent the literal embodiment of the forerunners of classic mummification, which would become one of the central and iconic pillars of ancient Egyptian culture.”

pyramidPhoto by Adam Bichler on Unsplash

Other ancient cultures around the world including the Chinchurro people of Chile and Peru, also practised techniques to preserve the bodies of the dead, millennia ago.

The ancient techniques are said to have inspired the modern embalming movement, enabling the temporary preservation of people’s bodies before their funeral.

In the 1700s two British scientists, William Harvey and William Hunter, pioneered arterial embalming, a science further developed by French chemist Jean-Nicolas Gannal in the 1830s.

Adopted in the US by Dr Thomas Holmes, the new technique, injecting chemicals – initially, potassium salts – into the arteries, led to bodies of thousands of fallen soldiers being returned to their grieving families for funerals, during the American Civil War.

Funeral directors began to take on the responsibility from doctors and surgeons in the late 1800s.

Today, some people choose embalming because it is a cultural tradition, or because they wish to view their loved one in the days or weeks before their funeral.

Embalming is required before someone’s body is repatriated overseas for their funeral and is also carried out on bodies donated to medical science.

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