Researchers have found new evidence to suggest that the origins of mummification started in ancient Egypt 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.
The findings of an 11-year study by a researcher in the Department of Archaeology at York, and York’s BioArCh facility, and an Egyptologist from the Department of Ancient History at Sydney’s Macquarie University, push back the origins of a central facet of ancient Egyptian culture by a millennium.
Traditional theories on ancient Egyptian mummification suggest that in prehistory, the Late Neolithic and Predynastic periods between 4500 and 3100 BC, bodies were desiccated naturally through the action of the hot, dry desert sand.
Evidence for the early use of resins in artificial mummification has, until now, been limited to isolated occurrences during the late Old Kingdom (2200 BC). Their use became more apparent during the Middle Kingdom (2000-1600 BC).
But the York, Macquarie and Oxford team identified the presence of complex embalming agents in linen wrappings from bodies in tombs in one of the earliest recorded ancient Egyptian cemeteries at Mostagedda, in the region of Upper Egypt.
“For over a decade I have been intrigued by early and cryptic reports of the methods of wrapping bodies at the Neolithic cemeteries at Badari and Mostagedda,” said Dr Jana Jones of Macquarie University.
“In 2002, I examined samples of funerary textiles from these sites that had been sent to various museums in the United Kingdom through the 1930s from Egypt.
“Microscopic analysis with my colleague Mr Ron Oldfield revealed resins were likely to have been used, but I wasn’t able to confirm my theories, or their full significance, without tapping into my York colleague’s unique knowledge of ancient organic compounds.”
Dr Jones initiated the research and led the study jointly with Dr Stephen Buckley, a Research Fellow at the University of York.
“Such controversial inferences challenge traditional beliefs on the beginnings of mummification,” said Dr Jones.
“They could only be proven conclusively through biochemical analysis, which Dr Buckley agreed to undertake after a number of aborted attempts by others. His knowledge includes many organic compounds present in an archaeological context, yet which are often not in the literature or mass spectra libraries.”
Predating the earliest scientific evidence by more than a millennium, these embalming agents constitute complex, processed recipes of the same natural products, in similar proportions, as those employed at the zenith of Pharaonic mummification some 3,000 years later.
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