Study Reveals Recipes of Ancient Egyptian Embalmers

Study Reveals Recipes of Ancient Egyptian Embalmers

The excavation area of ​​the Saqqara Tombs project, with a view of the Pyramid of Unas and the step pyramid of Djoser, facing north, in October 2022.

In ancient Egypt, dying was just one step. However, to access eternal life, it was better to cross it. Not only did the dead see his soul judged by the gods, but his carnal envelope also had to be protected from decomposition and destruction because the Egyptians believed that a damaged body represented an obstacle to reaching the afterlife. Hence the recourse, for those who could afford it, to the sophisticated art of embalmers and their balms, oils and other ointments, the ingredients of which remained little known until today.

The secret dissipates thanks to an international study published on Wednesday 1er February in the magazine Naturewhich sheds light on both the “cooking” recipes of ancient embalmers and the commercial channels through which they obtained the products, sometimes very exotic, which they used to prevent the ravages of death.

Prevent putrefaction

It took ten weeks to perform the mummification. Accompanied by ritual acts, this process consisted of drying the corpse using natron (a natural sodium carbonate), gutting it, removing the brain through the nose, treating the skin with different mixtures, then to swaddle it in strips also coated with substances. All this, coupled with the extremely dry climate of Egypt which favors the preservation of bodies, prevented putrefaction.

To pierce up to date the chemical recipes used by the ancient preparers, the authors of the study of Nature benefited from the discovery of an exceptional embalmer’s workshop, in operation in the VIIe and VIe centuries before our era. Discovery made in 2016 at the great necropolis of Saqqara (Memphis region, south of Cairo).

Read also: In Egypt, the necropolis of Saqqara, south of Cairo, unveils its new archaeological treasures

Why exceptional? On the one hand because this workshop, partly underground, was linked to a cemetery dug 30 meters deep, and above all because, in a cache, were found the containers used by the embalmers, which included both markings on substances and instructions for their use – e.g. “to put on the head”. The scientists selected about thirty of these pieces of pottery, mainly goblets and bowls whose “label” was the most legible.

Analysis of the substances found

Lecturer in the Department of Prehistory and Archaeoscience at the University of Tübingen (Germany), Maxime Rageot is the first author of the article. He explained to World that, apart from a few drips, the residues of the mixtures used by the embalmers “were not generally visible to the naked eye but were trapped in the clay matrix of the pottery. We therefore abraded the surface of these ceramics to recover the substances and analyze them”. The French researcher emphasizes “the incredible preservation of these products over time, which makes it possible to detect highly volatile molecules from essential oils and to go very far in the identification of raw materials”.

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