Traditionally, it was believed that prehistoric Egyptians practiced mummification by leaving bodies of the deceased out in the hot, dry desert to allow the bodies to desiccate naturally. The use of resins and other embalming agents to preserve bodies artificially was thought to have begun during the late Old Kingdom (c. 2200 B.C.E.), reaching its height in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000–1600 B.C.E.).
An 11-year study conducted by researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie and Oxford used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and thermal desorption/pyrolysis to examine linen wrappings in Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic (c. 4500–3350 B.C.E.) tombs in cemeteries at Mostagedda in Upper Egypt. Wrapped around the bodies of the entombed, the linens were found to contain some of the same embalming agents—in similar proportions—that were used over a millennia later in Pharaonic mummification in Middle Kingdom Egypt.
“This work demonstrates the huge potential of material in museum collections to allow researchers to unearth new information about the archaeological past,” said coauthor Thomas Higham of Oxford in a Macquarie University press release. “Using modern scientific tools, our work has helped to illuminate a key aspect of the early history of ancient Egypt.”
The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—across the Mediterranean world.