Scientific analysis on a 5,000-year-old mummy suggests ancient Egyptians’ “recipe” for embalming their dead has been around much longer than previously thought, according to a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Because the mummy was found in a region where embalming practices weren’t thought to have been used yet, it could change what we know about Ancient Egyptian society.
For more than a century, the “Turin body” has been housed in the Egyptian Museum of Turin. Dating back to between 3700 and 3500 BC, it was previously thought to have been mummified by natural processes found in a dry, hot climate and had never undergone any sort of conservation treatment, making it a perfect specimen for modern scientific analysis.
Researchers analyzed the chemical makeup of the mummy to determine that it had, in fact, undergone an embalming process; funerary textiles showed traces of plant oil, heated conifer resin, plant extract, gum, and sugar that were mixed together. This mixture contains antibacterial agents in similar proportions used by Egyptian embalmers around 2,500 years later.
"The examination of the Turin body makes a momentous contribution to our limited knowledge of the prehistoric period and the expansion of early mummification practices as well as providing vital, new information on this particular mummy,” said Egyptologist Jana Jones in a statement.
Radiocarbon dating and microscopic analysis of the linen wrappings confirmed the Turin body is a male, aged between 20 and 30 when he died, and was mummified in a ritualistic way around 3600 BC. During this time, Egypt was split into two geographic and cultural regions known today as Upper and Lower Egypt. Because the Turin body was found 160 kilometers (100 miles) from another site in Upper Egypt, preserved with methods observed in other areas, it suggests Ancient Egyptian society was developing a cohesive pan-Egyptian identity.
"This indicates a common funerary embalming recipe used at a time when the concept of a pan-Egyptian identity was supposedly still developing and some 500 years before Egypt became the world's first nation state in 3100 BC," study author Stephen Buckley told IFLScience. "The antibacterial conifer resin identified is not native to Egypt and so must have been imported, with the Near East – what is now Israel [and] Palestine – being the closest source, so it also informs us on trade routes between the Near East and southern Egypt at this time."
Traditionally, theories on ancient Egyptian mummification processes suggest that the use of resins was limited to the late Old Kingdom (2200 BC) and widespread during the Middle Kingdom (2000-1600 BC). The current study, which builds on 11 years of research published in 2014 by the same group, suggests our understanding of when embalming practices in ancient Egypt began should be pushed back by more than a millennium.
"The mummy provides a vital and symbolic link, which allows us to have better insight into the origins of mummification and so is certainly a significant and important step forward in our understanding of Egyptian mummification as a whole," said Buckley.