In ancient Egypt, the must-have fashion for any royal mummy taking a trip to the afterlife was a resin shell to cover your wrapped remains. But what to do if you can't get your hands on these expensive and imported resin carapaces? Just use mud, obviously.
Archaeologists restudying an ancient Egyptian mummy recently discovered it’s an extremely rare example of an individual who appears to be preserved in textile wrappings and good old-fashioned mud. One theory behind this “muddy mummy” is that it's an example of "elite emulation," a lower-cost alternative to the pricy resin shells found in the wrappings of royal bodies from this period.
Mummies from the late New Kingdom to the 21st Dynasty of Egypt (1294 to 945 BCE) have occasionally been discovered with a hard resin shell, or “carapace,” within its wrappings. However, as reported in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists at Macquarie University in Australia discovered mummies wrapped in mud have never actually been documented in literature before, making this the first study on this unusual mortuary practice.
“Mummified bodies in collections all over the world have been sitting right under our noses for generations. The application of new technology can reveal totally new information which challenges what we previously knew,” Dr Karin Sowada, lead study author and archaeologist from Macquarie University, said in a statement.
The mummy was bought by an Australia-English explorer and politician called Sir Charles Nicholson while on a trip to Egypt from 1856 to 1857. It was subject to some scans in 1999, which revealed the presence of a carapace, but more recent CT scans and analysis of the textiles have revealed that the mummy is actually fully sheathed in a clay casing.
The coffin inscription identifies the owner as a titled woman named Meruah, although the researchers have strong suspicions this isn’t the person inside since the inscription contains iconography that dates to approximately 1000 BCE, but new radiocarbon dating of textile samples from the linen wrappings place the mummified individual in the late New Kingdom, around 1200 to 1113 BCE. The new study suggests that the remains once belonged to a female aged between 26 to 35 years old, but the rest of her identity remains a mystery.
“Given the overall quality of her mummification, and the added expense of the carapace to restore the body, we can say that she was a person from a family of means, but there is little more we can say,” Dr Sowada told IFLScience. “The radiocarbon dates tell us the body and its coffin are unrelated, so we don't know her name or status.”
Whether it is an example of “elite emulation” or potentially an attempt to reconfigure a damaged body before it enters the afterlife, the team believes this is the first time such a practise has been documented in a scientific study. However, they suspect that mud carapaces may be found on many other non-royal mummies.
“We believe that shells identified as 'resin' discovered in prior CT studies of mummified individuals housed in museums may have been misidentified. Owing to the more affordable nature of mud, it is likely that this form of mummification artefact is more common than previously thought,” Dr Sowada told IFLScience. “Earlier results from other studies will need to be re-examined in light of our results and of course this study will inform any new work. “
Either way, this rare muddy mortuary practice is "a new addition to our understanding of ancient Egyptian mummification," the team said.