Category Archives: Egypt
Ancient Egypt continues to throw up one fabulous surprise after another.
Today my colleagues and I published our analysis of an intact Egyptian prehistoric body (from around 3700-3500 BC) that had been housed in a museum in Turin, Italy, since 1901. The results provide strong evidence that embalming was taking place 1,500 years earlier than previously accepted.
The dead man was previously assumed to have been naturally mummified by the desiccating action of the hot, dry desert sand. But now we know it was deliberately preserved.
Together with our previous research, this new information tells us that the prehistoric Egyptians – those living 1,500 or more years before the Pharaohs – already had knowledge of the processes required to preserve the body, and practised a developed religious belief system about the afterlife.
We had hints
Prior to this new study, our analysis of funerary wrappings from prehistoric bodies from sites in central Egypt proved that the ancient Egyptians who lived before the time of the pharaohs used some body preservation techniques.
Reports of pellets of resin in pouches with the bodies in early burials excavated at prehistoric sites at Badari and Mostagedda in Middle Egypt (c. 4500-3350 BC) had made me wonder whether they were already using resin in a rudimentary form of mummification.
Resin is an substance harvested from certain trees, particularly pine, and is a preservative component of embalming mixtures.
In our previous work we did not have whole bodies – only small fragments of linen in British museums. The pieces of fabric were the only surviving evidence the bodies had been wrapped, and had been donated by the excavators in the early 20th century in return for funding for excavation.
But we didn’t have any further samples to expand this work – until now.
Preparing for the afterlife
The central tenet of ancient Egyptian mummification was preservation of a perfect body so that it could enter into the afterlife as a complete entity. If a crocodile had bitten off a leg, a wooden prosthesis would be substituted.
The wrapped bodies at prehistoric sites generally had not come under intense scrutiny when excavated, because in the 19th and early 20th centuries interest was overwhelmingly in the artefacts. Furthermore, there had been no reason to believe that the prehistoric Egyptians were using any preservative balms on their dead.
Like the British, the Italians were conducting their own excavations to fill the Museo Egizio in Turin. Perhaps the best-known archaeologist is Ernesto Schiaparelli, director of the museum between 1895 and 1928.
Schiaparelli went on a number of missions to Egypt to excavate and purchase mummies and artefacts from antiquities dealers, including the prehistoric body in this current study (identified as “Turin S. 293, RCGE 16550”), bought between 1900 and 1901.
It is only one of 20 bodies of this period (c. 3600 BC) in international museums. Although there are few written records on the body’s provenance, Gebelein in Middle Egypt is the most probable source.
A recipe for preservation
In 2014, a research grant from Macquarie University afforded a unique opportunity to forensically examine this Turin mummy.
Working with an international team, we took minute samples of textile and skin for biochemical analysis, radiocarbon dating, textile analysis and DNA analysis of pathogenic bacteria.
The mummy had not undergone conservation in the museum which meant that contamination was minimal, making him an ideal subject for scientific investigation. The downside of not having been conserved and consolidated is that he is extremely fragile and damaged.
Chemical analysis of the residues on the textile wrappings from the torso and wrist using a technique known as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry revealed the presence of a plant oil or animal fat, a sugar/gum, a conifer resin and an aromatic plant extract.
The resin and aromatic plant extracts are the two main antibacterial components that would have repelled insects and preserved the soft tissue underneath. Chemical signatures indicate gentle heating, so it was indeed a “recipe” that was probably applied by dipping the linen into the melted mixture and then wrapping.
Radiocarbon dating of linen – one sample each from the body and the basket of fragments accompanying the body – gave a date range of around 3700-3500 BC. Both samples shared the same early spinning technology observed in Egyptian linen between about 5000 BC and 3600 BC, when a momentous change in the direction of the spin took place.
No pathogenic DNA was detected by metagenomics, either because it had not survived the environmental conditions in Egypt or the museum (which until recently was not climate-controlled).
As a result, we do not know whether he died from an infectious disease. Furthermore, his extremely fragile state prevented him from being moved for X-ray analysis.
Together with our previous research, the information gleaned from this complete mummy tells us that the prehistoric Egyptians already had knowledge of the processes required to preserve the body, as well as an already developed religious belief system about the afterlife.
They had access to resins from the Eastern Mediterranean, suggesting long-distance trade. That similar components were used in the balms in burials 200 km apart, and indeed continued to be used in similar proportions by the pharaonic period embalmers when their skills were at their peak some 2,500 years later, shows the enduring nature of ancient Egyptian ingenuity.
As far as crowd-pleasers go, it’s hard to beat mummies. When Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs opened at the Melbourne Museum in 2011, it broke all previous records for touring exhibitions in Australia, attracting more than 800,000 visitors over its run and 10,192 visitors on a single day in May.
Last month, a new exhibition titled Mummymania opened at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne. Featuring traditional Egyptian funerary objects such as amulets, figurines, offering vessels, bandages, and a decorated coffin, the exhibition also features actual mummified human remains.
As such, it offers an opportunity to reconsider how museum spaces exhibit and facilitate respectful engagement with the dead. It also offers a chance to reflect on the more recent history of the mummy – its role in scientific investigations into ancient disease and medicine, and its place in popular culture.
A recent history of the mummy
Since the 1970s, indigenous groups have rightfully claimed the return of ancestral human remains held in museum collections. Ancient Egyptian mummies have no living claimants, however, and are part of a long tradition of unearthing and display that forms part of the history of archaeology and the ongoing public fascination with ancient Egypt.
Interest in Egyptian mummies by Europeans can be traced back to the 5th century BC and the Greek historian Herodotus who provided one of the first accounts of the mummification process.
Throughout the following centuries mummies were plundered for jewellery and amulets; ground up and used as medicines; and even as a pigment base for paint.
The dark resinous coating applied to mummies as part of the embalming process was mistakenly believed to be bitumen (Persian “mummia”) which was used as a medicine in Greece and the Near East.
Egyptian mummies were harvested for the dried resin as well as for their dried flesh. By the 16th century mummy had become a highly-prized drug exported to Western Europe where it was ground up, applied to wounds, and swallowed.
As well as being used as medicine, by the 18th century Egyptian mummies had become the focus of the medical community as scientific specimens. Mummies were dissected by doctors at private homes in front of audiences of medical practitioners and curious spectators.
Fragments of the mummy’s flesh, bandages, and accompanying artefacts were passed among the audience to be touched, smelt and tasted.
During the 19th century mummy unwrapping events moved to more professional locations such as medical and military museums, hospital operating theatres, laboratories, pharmacies, and respected scientific organisations such as the Royal Institution.
These popular, spectacular events attracted a paying audience made up of academics and the interested public. Melbourne had its own mummy unwrapping in 1893 when a female mummy was unwrapped in the concert hall in the Royal Exhibition Building in front of a crowd of 700 people, mostly women.
Popular culture & the mummy
Egyptian mummies were also used in art; pulverised mummies formed the basis of Caput Mortuum, also known as Mummy Brown, a rich brown pigment used in paintings from the 16th up until the 20th century. Mummy Brown featured in paintings by artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Edward Burne-Jones among others.
When Burne-Jones discovered that the pigment really did contain ground up mummy he ceremoniously buried his tube of paint in the garden. Despite its widespread use, Mummy Brown eventually fell out of favour through a combination of distaste regarding its origins and technical problems such as its tendency to crack.
The mummy even featured in 19th-century fiction where it was portrayed as a gentle, even romantic character up until the publication in 1892 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Lot No. 249.
In this story a mummy is brought back to life by an Oxford college student through the use of ancient Egyptian magic and sent to attack all the people the student has a grudge against.
The story marked a turning point in the representation of the mummy who from that time on would be depicted as a frightening reanimated corpse. By the 20th century ancient Egyptian mummies were definite villains, sinister, predatory figures featuring in pulp magazines dedicated to fantasy, science fiction, mystery and the occult, as well as in film.
Universal Studio’s The Mummy (1932) starring Boris Karloff, is the classic mummy horror movie. In this film Imhotep, an Egyptian priest who had been buried alive for attempting to resurrect his beloved princess, is accidentally revived when an archaeologist reads from the life-giving Scroll of Thoth. The mummy then stalks a beautiful young woman he believes is his lost love reincarnated.
Archaeologists excavating an Egyptian tomb are terrorised by a mummy in The Mummy’s Hand (1940), and in a sequel, The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), the mummy reappears at the archaeologists’ home in New England. More recently Universal made The Mummy (1999), followed by The Mummy Returns (2001), both of which are based on the original premise of the 1932 movie.
But, of course, mummies are not fictional movie creations. They’re real, and still very much with us, as exhibitions such as the current one remind us.
Mummymania, at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, runs until April 17, 2016. Details here.