Secret oil for ancient Egyptian embalming was transported ten thousand kilometers

(ORDO NEWS) — Examining vessels from a mummy-making workshop provides a whole new insight into the substances used to preserve human bodies in ancient Egypt.

Some of them were brought from the Philippines, whose trade relations with the ancient Egyptians were previously unknown.

An international team of scientists analyzed chemical residues in vessels from an embalming workshop in Saqqara. This workshop is located near the Pyramid of Unas and was only discovered in 2016.

More than 100 years have passed since the English archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter found the tomb of Tutankhamun along with his world-famous mummy.

Since then, researchers have learned a lot about how the ancient Egyptians prepared bodies for mummification.

But so far there has been very little reliable information about how they embalmed the dead – making their remains immortal as a result.

Secret oil for ancient Egyptian embalming was transported ten thousand kilometers 2
Workshop excavations. Immediately behind it is the Pyramid of Unas, further on is the Step Pyramid of Djoser

Some information about the compositions used to preserve the bodies can be obtained from ancient Egyptian written sources.

Chemists could recognize individual elements by analyzing the linen bandages of mummies, the internal parts of sarcophagi and grave goods of tombs. But it has not yet reached the exact recipes.

The opening of a workshop in Saqqara in this sense was a real sensation in Egyptology. There, ancient Egyptian specialists mummified the dead in the 7th-6th centuries BC.

The room, apparently, was never robbed, so numerous vessels were preserved in it.

And on the vessels there are inscriptions informing about what exactly was in them, and even containing some tips on mixing the ingredients.

From more than a hundred vessels found for the analysis of organic residues, the authors of the work selected 31 samples with the most clear markings.

For comparison, they added four more vessels not from the workshop, but from the burial chambers of the necropolis in Saqqara.

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The vessels in the workshop are perfectly preserved

Using the methods of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, scientists found out that animal fats, beeswax, as well as oils and / or resins of various plants were stored in the vessels: juniper, cypress, cedar, pistachio tree ( Pistacia ) and others.

Most of these ingredients were previously known as ingredients in embalming mixtures.

But some components were not found anywhere before this study. These are dammar resin, obtained from trees of the dipterocarp family (Dipterocarpaceae), and elemi oil, which is extracted from the Luzon canarium (Canarium luzonicum).

As you can understand by the name of the latter, these trees grow far from Egypt – in Southeast Asia (Philippines).

This is the first evidence that goods came to Ancient Egypt from such distant lands. All other oils and resins are obtained from plants growing in the Levant.

The constant use of elemi oil and dammar resin by the ancient Egyptian embalmers in their work is evidence of an established trade with Southeast Asia.

This, in turn, raises the question of how and when the Egyptians even learned about these substances, their properties and significance for mummification.

This is not the only discovery made by the authors of the work. Dead Sea bitumen, found in mummies 12 years ago, was previously strongly associated with embalming and the mummification process.

However, scientists did not find traces of it in any vessel from the workshop. But he was in all the vessels from the burial chambers.

Researchers suggest that the Egyptians did not use it directly when processing the body, but only during the final rites, which had more of a sacred meaning, and did not ensure the safety of the mummy.

Also, the results of the study changed the traditional ideas about some ancient Egyptian writings, which were considered quite deciphered and understandable.

The scientists analyzed the contents of the vessels marked “antiu” (antiu) and “sefet” (sefet), traditionally identified as myrrh and oil.

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The process of embalming as seen by the artist

It turned out that these words have a different meaning: this is how the Egyptians called mixtures of certain ingredients.

The first is a mixture of oil or resin of cedar, juniper, cypress and animal fat. The second was made from animal fat and elemi oil.

Although the recipes for antiu and sefet are similar, they are not identical.

Further work may explain what properties of these substances were valued by embalmers and how exactly they were used to preserve different parts of a dead body.

The Egyptians themselves left some clues, because there are inscriptions on the vessels that can be translated as: “for the head” or “for beautiful skin”.

Beautiful skin, as we see, cared for people at all times – and even after death.


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