Scientists discover balm ingredients from Egyptian mummies

Archaeological research site in the Saqqara tombs, south of the Egyptian capital, Cairo.Image University of Tübingen, S. Beck

Huge pyramids, richly decorated sarcophagi – the ancient Egyptians cared for the wealthy deceased to perfection. In addition, a new study shows that they used exotic balms to make mummies. German archaeologists found ten ingredients in a workshop, some of which came from outside Egypt. The German study was published on Wednesday nature.

The ingredients mostly came from the Mediterranean, but exotic materials also appeared. For example, researchers found damar resin from Southeast Asia, more than 5,000 kilometers away.

“The ancient Egyptians had communications over long distances, and this is a clear example,” says Daniel Soliman, an Egyptologist at the National Museum of Antiquities. They may not have traveled to Asia themselves, but merchants were passing the resin to each other.

To preserve the bodies for a longer period of time, the ancient Egyptians used various types of analgesics. These were often mixtures of vegetable resins and oils, sometimes with animal fats. The exact composition of these balms has long been a mystery.

German researchers studied 31 cups and bowls that are about 2,500 years old. Their remains were exhumed at Saqqara, a large necropolis south of the Egyptian capital Cairo, where the elite in particular found their final resting place.

Various inscriptions described what was in the containers and how people should use the contents. The researchers compared these texts to the chemical composition of the remaining remains. They found ten ingredients mixed together in different combinations.

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“The research is a wonderful mixture of archaeological, linguistic and chemical research,” Suleiman says. He is not involved in the German study, but he is doing archaeological excavations at Saqqara with the National Museum of Antiquities.

It envisioned mummification in an underground tomb under the guidance of a priest.  Statue of Nikola Nevinov

It envisioned mummification in an underground tomb under the guidance of a priest.Statue of Nikola Nevinov

Solomon says mummification also had religious overtones. The next of kin wanted to transform the body of the deceased into a being with divine powers in the afterlife. Some mummy items kept for longer. Others, for example beeswax, had religious connotations, as we know from other ancient Egyptian rituals. This distinction is sometimes difficult to make. Things went hand in hand for the ancient Egyptians.

Why they applied so many types of analgesics is still not clear. “Maybe they used different balms at different times during the process, or some materials were cheaper.”

The German research questions the usual definition of a commonly used ancient Egyptian substance: You and And sift. It often appears in descriptions of religious sacrifices.

For a long time, based on linguistic research, Egyptologists thought so You and It is mainly composed of myrrh resin, which comes from the plants of the Arabian region. Labeled jars You and However, they contain a mixture of animal fats and juniper. And sift It turned out that it was not an oil, as it had long been believed, but an ointment. Egyptologists are aware that translations are not always correct. This shows that we must continue to question these translations, Solomon says.

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