What Is Mummification?

In ancient Egypt, people glorified the dead through a process known as mummification, a ritual that reached its peak around 1000 B.C. The main aim was to preserve human remains as best as possible in order to allow the ka, a part of the human spirit, to return to the intact human body which would facilitate the entry into the afterlife. Due to the expensive nature of the process, the majority of people who were mummified after death were pharaohs, officials, or members of the nobility. If it so happened that a commoner was to be mummified, the process of preservation was cut relatively short, using considerably fewer chemicals, leading to rather poor preservation of the corpse.

Image: Cleopatra Egyptian Tours

Across the centuries, assumptions were made as to the ‘magical formula’ used to almost flawlessly preserve the dead. As such, studying mummies in modern days has allowed us to shed light upon the validity of long-held assumptions about mummification, by having been able to pinpoint and identify the chemicals used in the process of embalming.

A Chemical Analysis of Embalming

After the removal of most organs apart from the heart (and at times the kidneys), the first step an ancient embalmer undertook was drying out the corpse using a compound commonly known as natron, or sodium bicarbonate. This natural salt mixture is hygroscopic or in other words, tends to attract moisture easily. As such, it easily absorbed most of the liquid in the corpse and dried it out, facilitating the preservation and partially removing odors through saponification, which is the conversion of fatty tissues into alcohol or soaps.

Chemistry behind mummification

The natron was left to act for over a month. A period after which it was removed from the body which was coated in fat. The double bonds would then crosslink as the fat dried out, forming a lattice impermeable to water and bacteria.

Subsequently, with the primary purpose to give the corpse more pleasant odors, it was stuffed with various dry substances such as sawdust, linen, myrrh, or onions. However, these substances would also protect against invasive microbes. For instance, the cinnamaldehyde contained in cinnamon played an antibacterial role, while onions contained molecules shielding the body against foreign microorganisms.

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Finally, the body was ready to be wrapped, the last step of the process. The bodies were coated in resins and oils, varying in nature over time. The most widely used were coniferous resin and cedar resin. Although substances such as beeswax and bitumen were believed to be widely used, their profusion was seen to be mitigated under the light of modern chemistry.

Preserving The Dead Bodies: The Chemistry Behind Mummification. 2
Bitumen was believed to be used by the Egyptians

How Was This Determined?

The nature of the various resins and oils were possible to determine due to the particular nature of the chemical signature they left behind on the strips of the bandages. Using microscopical samples of the former which they liquefied, scientists were able to heat each sample and record the time each substance took to vaporize.

This provided for a unique signature which was run in a mass spectrometer to determine the identity and nature of the substances found in the bandages. Scientists recorded an abundance in abietic acid, a marker for coniferous resin, as well as guaiacol, which suggests the presence of cedar oil.

Preserving The Dead Bodies: The Chemistry Behind Mummification. 3

Previously, speculations concerning the chemical composition of the oils and resins relied mainly on appearance and etymology. As such, bitumen was believed to be widely used due to the dark appearance of mummies and the fact that the word ‘mummy’ was believed to be derived from the Arabic ‘mumiyah’, signifying bitumen.

However, modern chemistry discarded the hypothesis that bitumen was widely used for the extensive use of hot wax and resin, drying into a dark substance, may also well have accounted for the blackening of mummies. And finally, the focus shifted onto a belief that ‘mummy’ comes from the Egyptian Coptic ‘mum’ meaning wax.

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