The Significance of Petroleum Bitumen in Ancient Egyptian Mummies

Katherine A Clark, S Ikram, Richard P Evershed

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)
354 Downloads (Pure)


Mummification was practised in Ancient Egypt for >3,000 years, emerging from initial observations of buried bodies preserved by natural desiccation. The use of organic balms (and other funerary practices) was a later introduction necessitated by more humid burial environments, especially tombs. The dark colour of many mummies led to the assumption that petroleum bitumen (or natural asphalt) was ubiquitous in mummification, however, this has been questioned for >100 years. We test this by investigating 91 materials comprising balms, tissues and textiles from 39 mummies dating from c. 3200 BC to AD 395. Targeted petroleum bitumen biomarker (steranes and hopanes) analyses by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry selected ion monitoring (GC-MS SIM, m/z 217 and 191) showed no detectable bitumen use before the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1070 BC). However, bitumen was used in 50% of New Kingdom to Late Period mummies, rising to 87% of Ptolemaic/Roman Period mummies. Quantitative determinations using 14C analyses reveal that even at peak use balms were never more than 30% w/w bitumen. Critically, the dark colour of balms can be simulated by heating/ageing mixtures of fats, resins and beeswax known to be used in balms. The application of black/dark brown balms to bodies was deliberate after the New Kingdom reflecting changing funerary beliefs and shifts in religious ideology.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20160229
Number of pages15
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number2079
Early online date19 Sept 2016
Publication statusPublished - 28 Oct 2016


  • Mummy balms
  • petroleum bitumen
  • steranes
  • hopanes
  • quantitative analysis
  • gas chromatography-mass spectrometry
  • selected ion monitoring
  • radiocarbon analysis


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