Antiquities and Archaeology Conservation News United Kingdom

Mummies lied about their age

New research shows that ancient Egyptians might have started preserving their dead 1,500 years earlier than originally thought

Grave 2223, Mostagedda, where a some of Egypt’s oldest cemeteries are found. Photo: G. Brunton, Mostagedda and the Tasian Culture (London 1937) Pl. VI.

It looks as if the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead 1,500 years earlier than scholars had originally thought. Researchers from the UK and Australia found traces of embalming agents on prehistoric funerary textiles that date from between 4500BC and 3350BC.

Pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, petroleum and plant oil/animal fat were found on linen wrappings from Late Neolithic and Predynastic pit graves at Mostagedda—a site with some of Egypt’s oldest cemeteries. The textiles were excavated during the 1920s and 30s and brought to England to the Bolton Museum near Manchester.

Mummies from these early periods in Egyptian history are generally thought to have desiccated naturally—a result of being buried in dry desert sand. Mummification by artificial means in Egypt is traditionally thought to have started in the Old Kingdom (around 2649BC–2150BC), with the practice reaching its peak in the New Kingdom (1550BC-1070BC).

Stephen Buckley, a research fellow from the University of York’s archaeology department who worked on the project with colleagues from the University of Oxford and Macquarie University in Sydney, says this new research suggests that these burials represent “the very beginnings of experimentation” in mummification. “These resinous recipes applied to the prehistoric, linen-wrapped bodies contained antibacterial agents, used in the same proportions employed by the Egyptian embalmers when their skill was at its peak, some 2,500 to 3,000 years later,” Buckley says.

The results of the study were published today in the online journal PLOS One.

Flax yarn from late Neolithic wrappings that are heavily impregnated with "toffee-like" resin. Photo: © Ron Oldfield and Jana Jones
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