Mummy mystery unwrapped: Egyptian burial custom began 6,000 years ago

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 9:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 9:42pm

It has long been known that the practice of mummification of the dead in ancient Egypt - fundamental to that civilisation's belief in eternal life - was old, but only now are researchers unwrapping the mystery of just how long ago it began.

Researchers on Wednesday said a form of mummification was being carried out in Egypt more than 6,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought. They said embalming substances contained in funerary textiles from the oldest-known Egyptian cemeteries dated from about 4300BC.

The embalming agents were infused into the linen used to wrap the corpse to provide an antibacterial and protective barrier. It was not as elaborate as the process used much later on the bodies of powerful pharaohs and other elites as well as many ordinary Egyptians, but came more than 1,500 years earlier than Egyptian mummification had been thought to have started.

There is evidence of mummification involving remains from around 2600BC of Queen Hetepheres, mother of Khufu, the pharaoh who commissioned the Great Pyramid at Giza outside Cairo.

The researchers were amazed to find that the plant, animal and mineral components used in preparing the mummies at the cemeteries in Mostagedda in central Egypt were essentially the same "recipe" used thousands of years later at the pinnacle of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

"I was surprised that the prehistoric Egyptians, who lived in a tribal society 1,000 years before the invention of writing, were already in possession of the empirical science that would later become true mummification," said one of the researchers, Jana Jones, an Egyptologist at Macquarie University in Australia.

Biochemical analysis identified the components from funerary textiles retrieved from the cemeteries during excavations in the 1920s and 1930s and held in Britain's Bolton Museum. The "recipe" consisted of a plant oil or animal fat base, with smaller amounts of a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum and petroleum.

The practice of mummification reached its peak during the era known as the New Kingdom, between about 1550BC and 1000BC, when powerful pharaohs reigned including Ramses II and Thutmose III.