For thousands of years, ancient Egyptians mummified their dead in the search for eternal life. Now, researchers have used chemistry and an unusual collection of jars to figure out how they did it. Their study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, is based on a rare archaeological find: an embalming workshop with a trove of pottery around 2,500 years old. Many jars from the site were still inscribed with instructions like "to wash" or "to put on his head." By matching the writing on the outside of the vessels with the chemical traces inside, researchers uncovered new details about the "recipes" that helped preserve bodies for thousands of years.
"It's like a time machine, really," Joann Fletcher, an archaeologist at University of York not involved with the study, tells the AP. "It's allowed us to not quite see over the shoulders of the ancient embalmers, but probably as close as we'll ever get." Those recipes showed that embalmers had deep knowledge about what substances would help preserve their dead, said Fletcher, whose partner was a co-author on the study. And they included materials from far-flung parts of the world—meaning Egyptians went to great lengths to make their mummies "as perfect as they could possibly be." The workshop—uncovered in 2016 by study author Ramadan Hussein, who passed away last year—is located in the famous burial grounds of Saqqara.
Parts of it sit above the surface, but a shaft stretches down to an embalming room and burial chamber underground, where the jars were discovered. It was in rooms like these where the last phase of the process took place, said Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo who wasn't involved with the study. Scientists found several jars labeled as "antiu" contained a mixture of different substances—including animal fat, cedar oil, and juniper resin. These substances, along with others found in the jars, have key properties that would help preserve the mummies, said lead author Maxime Rageot, a University of Tuebingen archaeologist.
Plant oils—used to protect the liver and treat the bandages—could ward off bacteria and fungi and improve the smell. Hard materials like beeswax, used on the stomach and skin, could help keep out water and seal pores. Some of the substances came from far away, including resins from Southeast Asian rainforests. These results show that ancient Egyptians would trade far and wide to get the most effective materials, the authors said. "It's interesting to see the complexity," said senior author Philipp Stockhammer, an archaeologist at Ludwig Maximilian University. (Read more discoveries stories.)