Unlocking Ancient Secrets: Egyptians Mastered Mummification Centuries Ahead of Recorded History

Tests on a prehistoric mummy reveal that ancient Egyptian embalming methods were in use 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.

The analysis was carried out on the ‘Turin Mummy’, which dates to between 3700BC and 3500BC and has been housed in the Egyptian Museum in Turin since 1901.

Unlike the majority of other prehistoric mummies in museums, it has never undergone any conservation treatments.

This image shows the remains of a coffin containing the mummy in the fetal position

This provided researchers a unique opportunity for accurate scientific analysis of a preserved corpse that has not been tampered with since it was entombed.

Like its famous counterpart Gebelein Man A in the British Museum, the Turin mummy was previously assumed to have been naturally mummified by the desiccating action of the hot, dry desert sand.

Using chemical analysis, researchers uncovered evidence that the mummy had in fact undergone an embalming process.

This was done using plant oil, heated conifer resin, an aromatic plant extract, and a plant gum and sugar mix. This was wiped on the funerary textiles in which the body was wrapped.

The analysis was carried out on the ‘Turin Mummy’ (pictured), which dates to between 3700BC and 3500BC and has been housed in the Egyptian Museum in Turin since 1901

The ‘recipe’ contained antibacterial agents, used in similar proportions to those employed by the Egyptian embalmers when their skill was at its peak some 2,500 years later, according to the team.

The study builds on previous research from 2014 which first identified the presence of complex embalming agents in surviving fragments of linen wrappings from prehistoric bodies in now obliterated tombs at Mostagedda in Middle Egypt.

According to the team, which includes researchers from Oxford, York, and Warwick Universities, the mummy came from Upper Egypt.

The body offers the first indication that the embalming recipe was being used over a wider geographical area at a time when the concept of a pan-Egyptian identity was supposedly still developing.

‘Having identified very similar embalming recipes in our previous research on prehistoric burials, this latest study provides both the first evidence for the wider geographical use of these balms and the first ever unequivocal scientific evidence for the use of embalming on an intact, prehistoric Egyptian mummy’, said Dr. Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist and mummification expert of York University.

Unlike the majority of other prehistoric mummies in museums, the ‘Turin Mummy’ has never undergone any conservation treatments, providing a unique opportunity for accurate scientific analysis. Pictured is the mask of King Tutankhamun at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

‘Moreover, this preservative treatment contained antibacterial constituents in the same proportions as those used in later “true” mummification.

As such, our findings represent the literal embodiment of the forerunners of classic mummification, which would become one of the central and iconic pillars of ancient Egyptian culture.’

Dr. Jana Jones, an expert on ancient Egyptian burial practices at Macquarie University in Australia said the find was a ‘momentous contribution to our limited knowledge of the prehistoric period’.

She said it also provided ‘vital, new information on this particular mummy.’

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