Mummy-Making Began Long Before Pharaohs

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The ancient Egyptians began mummifying bodies as far back as 6,000 years ago, analysis of Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic funerary wrappings has revealed.

The finding predates the origins of mummification in ancient Egypt by 1,500 years, indicating that resin-soaked textiles used in the prehistoric period (c. 4500 – 3350 B.C.) are the true antecedents of Egyptian mummification.

Experts have long assumed that in the 5th and 4th millennia B.C. preservation of soft tissues was due to natural processes, since buried bodies were naturally desiccated in the hot, dry desert sand.

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The start of true Egyptian mummification is generally dated to the Old Kingdom (2500 B.C.), although the use of preservative resinous recipes became evident centuries later during the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 – 1600 B.C.).

Detailing their finding in the current issue of PLOS ONE journal, researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie and Oxford report that complex embalming agents were soaked in linen wrappings covering bodies from Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic period tombs at Badari and Mostagedda in Upper Egypt.

"In 2002, I examined samples of funerary textiles from these sites that had been sent to various museums in the United Kingdom through the 1930s from Egypt," Jana Jones of Macquarie University, Sydney, said.

Preliminary microscopic analysis by Jones revealed resins were likely to have been used. After a number of aborted attempts by other experts, Stephen Buckley, a Research Fellow at the University of York, was able to carry successful biochemical analysis.

Using a combination of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption-pyrolysis, Buckley examined 23 samples of wrappings from Mostagedda. Radiocarbon dating at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit confirmed the Late Neolithic and predynastic dating of the textiles, with the oldest wrappings dating between 4316-3986 B.C.

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Buckley identified a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, a natural petroleum source, and a plant oil/animal fat in the wrappings.

"These are embalming agents," Buckley told Discovery News.

Plant oil or animal fat made up the the bulk of the balms, with far lesser amounts of a conifer resin and an aromatic plant extract, or "balsam," and minor amounts of a wax and a plant gum/sugar.

"Ingredients were brought from the North East Mediterranean. For example, the pine resin must have come from what is now south eastern Turkey," Buckley said.

According to Buckley, the mixtures, which had antibacterial properties, show the same ingredients used in approximately the same proportions in mummies from the pharaonic period some 3000 years later, when mummification was at its zenith.