Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Chemistry reveals mummies’ secrets

25.10.2001


Unravelling the past: pharaonic undertakers used oils, waxes and fats.
© Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland.


Analysis has only scratched the surface of the embalmer’s art.
© Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland.


Ancient embalming not to be sniffed at.

Archaeologists thought they had mummification wrapped up. But a new analysis of ancient Egyptian embalming suggests that they have underestimated this sophisticated funerary practice.

Pharaonic undertakers used a wealth of oils, waxes and fats, say Stephen Buckley and Richard Evershed at the University of Bristol, UK. They are the first to study several mummies from different periods using modern analytical chemistry1.



"This will be an eye-opener for archaeologists and Egyptologists everywhere," says Jaap Boon, a chemist at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The ancient Egyptians guarded the techniques of mummification closely. "Its sacred nature made them very protective," says Buckley. No written descriptions remain other than second-hand accounts by Greek and Roman historians. Information is also scant because the law protects mummies as rare historical artefacts and as human remains.

As modern chemistry requires only tiny samples, it does little damage to artefacts. "Curators all over the world should be excited about this," says archaeologist Sarah Wisseman of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

The variation of ingredients used may reveal important information about the ancient Egyptian economy. Just like today, the sophistication of ancient funerals went "according to their families pocket-books", says Wisseman. And changes in embalming practices through the ages might reflect shifts in trade routes throughout the ancient world.

Hardening evidence

The duo studied 13 mummies from the XII Egyptian dynasty (1985 BC) to Roman times (30 BC onwards), when the preservation practice fell from fashion.

They found evidence of many ’drying oils’. These substances would have been liquid when applied and then self-polymerized, hardening over time. The embalmers seem to have used these oils "a bit like a ’Ronseal’ to prevent moisture from getting in," says Buckley. This waterproof coating protected mummies from the humidity of underground tombs.

The researchers also found traces of precious plant resins. Although these probably also had a spiritual or cultural significance, they are now known to contain natural antibacterial agents. So they most likely served as preservatives, Evershed argues.

Beeswax is present only in later mummies. It may have been used more frequently as its anti-bacterial properties became appreciated, says Buckley. It might not be coincidence, he suggests, that the word for wax in the Coptic language - derived from ancient Egyptian - is ’mum’.

Analysis has only scratched the surface of the embalmer’s art.
© Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland.



The Bristol researchers hope to convince other curators to make their mummies available for analysis. "I’m the first to admit that we’ve just begun to scratch the surface," says Evershed.

References
  1. Buckley, S. A. & Evershed, R. P. Organic chemistry of embalming agents in Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman mummies. Nature, 413, 837 - 841, (2001).

  2. Bahn, P. G. The making of a mummy. Nature, 356, 109, (1992).


TOM CLARKE | Nature News Service
Further information:
http://www.nature.com/nsu/011025/011025-11.html
http://www.nature.com/nsu/

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Phagocytes versus killer cells - A closer look into the tumour tissue
21.10.2019 | Universität Duisburg-Essen

nachricht How intestinal cells renew themselves – the role of Klumpfuss in cell differentiation
21.10.2019 | Leibniz-Institut für Alternsforschung - Fritz-Lipmann-Institut e.V. (FLI)

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Solving the mystery of quantum light in thin layers

A very special kind of light is emitted by tungsten diselenide layers. The reason for this has been unclear. Now an explanation has been found at TU Wien (Vienna)

It is an exotic phenomenon that nobody was able to explain for years: when energy is supplied to a thin layer of the material tungsten diselenide, it begins to...

Im Focus: An ultrafast glimpse of the photochemistry of the atmosphere

Researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have explored the initial consequences of the interaction of light with molecules on the surface of nanoscopic aerosols.

The nanocosmos is constantly in motion. All natural processes are ultimately determined by the interplay between radiation and matter. Light strikes particles...

Im Focus: Shaping nanoparticles for improved quantum information technology

Particles that are mere nanometers in size are at the forefront of scientific research today. They come in many different shapes: rods, spheres, cubes, vesicles, S-shaped worms and even donut-like rings. What makes them worthy of scientific study is that, being so tiny, they exhibit quantum mechanical properties not possible with larger objects.

Researchers at the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE's Argonne National...

Im Focus: Novel Material for Shipbuilding

A new research project at the TH Mittelhessen focusses on the development of a novel light weight design concept for leisure boats and yachts. Professor Stephan Marzi from the THM Institute of Mechanics and Materials collaborates with Krake Catamarane, which is a shipyard located in Apolda, Thuringia.

The project is set up in an international cooperation with Professor Anders Biel from Karlstad University in Sweden and the Swedish company Lamera from...

Im Focus: Controlling superconducting regions within an exotic metal

Superconductivity has fascinated scientists for many years since it offers the potential to revolutionize current technologies. Materials only become superconductors - meaning that electrons can travel in them with no resistance - at very low temperatures. These days, this unique zero resistance superconductivity is commonly found in a number of technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Future technologies, however, will harness the total synchrony of electronic behavior in superconductors - a property called the phase. There is currently a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

International Symposium on Functional Materials for Electrolysis, Fuel Cells and Metal-Air Batteries

02.10.2019 | Event News

NEXUS 2020: Relationships Between Architecture and Mathematics

02.10.2019 | Event News

Optical Technologies: International Symposium „Future Optics“ in Hannover

19.09.2019 | Event News

 
Latest News

Fraunhofer LBF and BAM develop faster procedure for flame-retardant plastics

21.10.2019 | Materials Sciences

For EVs with higher range: Take greater advantage of the potential offered by lightweight construction materials

21.10.2019 | Materials Sciences

Benefit and risk: Meta-analysis draws a heterogeneous picture of drug-coated balloon angioplasty

21.10.2019 | Medical Engineering

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>