Ancient Egyptians used exotic oils from distant lands to make mummies
A workshop used for mummification at Saqqara in Egypt contains remnants of the substances used to make mummies, revealing many came from southern Africa or South-East Asia
1 February 2023
An underground workshop found at an ancient Egyptian burial site contains ceramic vessels with traces of the substances used to make mummies. They include resins obtained from as far away as India and South-East Asia, indicating that ancient Egyptians engaged in long-distance trade.
“We could identify a large diversity of substances which were used by the embalmers,” says Maxime Rageot at the University of Tübingen in Germany. “Few of them were locally available.”
The workshop, dating from around 600 BC, was discovered in 2016 at Saqqara, which was the burial ground of Egyptian royalty and elites for centuries. “It was used as an elite cemetery from the very earliest moment of the Egyptian state,” says Elaine Sullivan at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who wasn’t involved in the study.
Close to the pyramid of Unas, archaeologists led by Ramadan Hussein, also at the University of Tübingen, found two vertical shafts dug into the ground. One was 13 metres deep and led to the embalming workshop, while the other was 30 metres deep and led to burial chambers. Hussein died in 2022.
It is the first Egyptian embalming workshop to be found underground, says team member Susanne Beck at the University of Tübingen. This may have been to keep the process secret, but it also had the advantage of keeping decaying bodies cool.
In the workshop, the team found 121 beakers and bowls. Many were labelled: sometimes with instructions like “to put on his head”, sometimes with names of embalming substances and sometimes with administrator titles.
The researchers chose the nine beakers and 22 bowls with the most legible labels for analysis. They studied the chemical residues left in the bowls to find out what substances had been used during embalming and mummification.
A host of substances, including plant oils, tars, resins and animal fats, were discovered. Two examples were cedar oil and heated beeswax. Many of the substances were known to be used in mummification, but some were new.
One new substance was dammar, a gum-like resin obtained from trees in India and South-East Asia. The name “dammar” is a Malay word.
The team also found elemi: a pale yellow resin resembling honey that comes from trees in the rainforests of South Asia and southern Africa.
The dammar and elemi show that Egyptian embalming drove early globalisation, says Philipp Stockhammer at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, another member of the team. “You really needed to transport these resins over large distances.” It fits with other evidence of long-distance trade at the time.
The ancient Egyptian elite liked exotic goods as much as modern capitalists, says Sullivan. At times when the state was powerful and organised, “we see a great interest in the outside world and in connections to the outside world and bringing those things from the outside world together”.
Stockhammer and Sullivan both say that the substances were transported by chains of traders. “The Egyptians don’t have to be going to the eastern side of India themselves,” says Sullivan.
The researchers were also able to translate two new words. Many texts on mummification refer to antiu and sefet. The former had been tentatively translated as “myrrh” or “incense”, and the latter as “a sacred oil”. However, because they were written on pieces of pottery with residue inside, it was possible to identify them. It turns out antiu is a mixture of oils or tars from conifers. Meanwhile, sefet is an unguent – an ointment or lubricant – containing plant additives.
Many of the substances had antibacterial and antifungal properties, and were combined into elaborate mixtures. For Stockhammer, the complexity of the substances displays “enormous personal knowledge that was accumulated through these centuries of experience of embalming human individuals”.
That fits with textual evidence that priests tasked with embalming were important people with considerable skill, says Sullivan. “They would have needed to have a lot of ritual knowledge and a lot of material knowledge,” she says. The body had to be preserved physically and rites had to be performed correctly according to the Egyptian religion. It was “both a spiritual and physical practice”.
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