The traditional date that Egyptians began embalming human remains has for years been around 2600 B.C. That puts the rise of mummies in the time of the Old Kingdom, which is the same time period when the pyramids of Giza were built.
New evidence has come to light that suggests embalming may have begun in Egypt at least 1,500 years earlier. Scientists recently studied burial shrouds that originated between 4500 B.C. and 3100 B.C. and were surprised to find that trace amounts of embalming agents are still present on those ancient cloths. The shrouds were housed in England's Bolton Museum, where they'd been gathering dust for almost a century after being dug up mostly at Egyptian tombs found in the Asyuti Province.
The study, just published in the scientific journal Plos One, suggests that Egyptians in the Late Neolithic and Predynastic periods used animal fats, tree resins and plant extracts to concoct embalming fluids. Study leader Jana Jones and her team studied the wrappings after discovering repeated archaeologists' observations over the years about their "suspiciously shiny, waxy" look. Their appearance turned out to be a recipe of fats or oils mixed with plant resins and petroleum, which had been processed via a heating technique.
The recipe the scientists discovered was essentially the same recipe used centuries later in "classical" Egyptian mummifications. The study even suggests that these newly discovered earlier mummification attempts could have played a part in the later Egyptian belief that life after death required preserving one's earthly body.
Of course, in later mummifications, bodies have typically been found inside the shrouds. The scientists involved in the study believe that isn't the case here because the bodies were stolen or discarded. In the 1920s, when these items were first found, a higher priority was placed on physical artifacts like jewelry, pots and shells. Bodies were seen as unsavory, disgusting and ultimately disposable.
This is not the first study to find evidence that challenges traditional beliefs about when mummification began. Recent excavations at Heirakonpolis have revealed similarly resin-soaked shrouds that were used around 4000 B.C.
Photo: J. Wynia