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‘Surprising’ ancient Egyptian mummy ingredients discovered

PARIS: A study released Wednesday said that the discovery of dozens of beakers and bowls in a mummification workshop helped show how ancient Egyptians preserved their dead. Some “surprising” ingredients were brought from as far away as Southeast Asia.

In 2016, a 13-meter (42-foot) well was dug at the Saqqara Necropolis, south of Cairo. At the bottom of the well was an amazing collection of pottery from around 664-525 BC.

Researchers found tree resin from Asia, cedar oil from Lebanon, and bitumen from the Dead Sea inside the ships. This shows that global trade helped embalmers get the best ingredients from all over the world.

Ancient Egyptians used a very advanced method to preserve the bodies of the dead. They thought that if the bodies were kept whole, they would make it to the afterlife.

It took up to 70 days to finish. The body was dried out with natron salt, and the lungs, stomach, intestines, and liver were taken out. Also, the brain came out.

Then, the embalmers, who were helped by priests, washed the body and used different things to keep it from breaking down.

But most of the details of how this was done have been lost to history.

Now, a team of researchers from Germany’s Tuebingen and Munich universities, working with the National Research Centre in Cairo, has found some answers by analysing the residue in 31 ceramic vessels found at the Saqqara mummification workshop.

They were able to figure out which chemicals were used by comparing the residue to containers found in nearby tombs.

“To make his smell nice”
The lead author of the study, Maxime Rageot, told a press conference that the substances had “antifungal and antibacterial properties” that helped “preserve human tissues and cut down on bad smells.”

The labels on the containers are very helpful. One bowl’s label says, “To wash,” while another says, “To make his smell pleasant.”

The most attention was paid to the head, which got three different mixtures, one of which was marked “to put on his head.”

Egyptologist Susanne Beck said in a statement from Tuebingen University, “We have known the names of many of these embalming ingredients since ancient Egyptian writings were deciphered.”

“But until now, we only had a guess as to what each name stood for.”

Egyptologists were also able to figure out what some of the names of the things were because of the labels.

The few details we have about the process of mummification mostly come from ancient papyrus, and Greek writers like Herodotus often fill in the gaps.

By looking at what was left in their new bowls, the researchers found that the word “antiu,” which has been translated for a long time as “myrrh” or “frankincense,” can actually mean a mix of many different things.

In Saqqara, the bowl marked “antiu” was a mixture of cedar oil, juniper or cypress oil, and animal fats.

Embalming drove ‘globalisation’
Philipp Stockhammer of the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Germany said that the find showed that the ancient Egyptians had built up “enormous knowledge” through centuries of embalming.

For instance, they knew that if the body was taken out of the natron salt, it could be “colonised by microbes that would eat the skin,” as he put it.

Stockhammer said that the presence of resins like dammar and elemi, which probably came from tropical forests in Southeast Asia, and signs of Pistacia, juniper, cypress, and olive trees from the Mediterranean was “one of the most surprising findings.”

Stockhammer said that the wide range of materials shows that the “embalming industry” gave “globalisation” a boost.

It also shows that “Egyptian embalmers were very interested in experimenting and getting access to other resins and tars with interesting properties,” he said.

People think that the embalmers used a trade route that went through what is now Indonesia, India, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea to get to Egypt around 2000 BC.

Ramadan Hussein, an archaeologist at Tuebingen University, was in charge of the Saqqara dig. He died last year, though, before the research could be published in Nature on Wednesday.