Trends in Use of Organic Balms in Egyptian Mummification Revealed Through Biomolecular Analyses

Richard P Evershed, Katherine A Clark

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book

Abstract

The compositions of organic balms from over 70 mummies ranging in date from
c. 3500 BC to AD 395 have been studied using a combination of gas chromatography (GC), GC-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), GC-combustion-isotope ratio
mass spectrometry (GC-C-IRMS), and radiocarbon analysis. Mummies dating to
before the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1000 BC) were typically found to be
embalmed with only fat or oil, which may have been exogenous to the body in
many cases. Investigations of balms from mummies dating from after c. 1000 BC
showed them to comprise of fat/oil, beeswax, and/or resin. Pistacia resin, in
contrast to coniferous resin, was only identified in a small number of mummies
dated to between the Saite and Ptolemaic Periods (c. 700–30 BC). Ruminant
adipose fats, nonruminant adipose fats, plant oils, or a combination of these fats
and oils were employed in embalming. Steranes and triterpane biomarker analyses for bitumen were performed using selected ion monitoring GC/MS of the
saturated hydrocarbon fraction. The earliest example of the use of bitumen
identified in this study was in a mummy dated to the Twenty-First to TwentySecond Dynasties (c. 1064–927 BC), although its use was found to be most
prevalent during the Ptolemaic and Graeco-Roman Periods. Quantification of
bitumen in mummy balms shows the proportions of bitumen can be high, but
balms were never pure bitumen. Combining these findings with those from other
studies allowed assessments of variations in the composition of balms according
to age, gender, body part, and material type. Most notably, the balms of children
and females were found to comprise of fewer ingredients than the adult males.
Moreover, it was found that balms collected from the head and limbs were
simpler preparations than those applied to the torso. Balms visually identified
as “resins” generally contained more ingredients than those applied to bandages
and tissues. The major ingredients employed in balms were for the most part
probably local to Egypt and cheap (fat/oil and beeswax), although more expensive exotic imported materials (resins and bitumen) were present in a high
proportion of balms, especially in those mummies prepared after c. 1000 BC.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication Handbook of Mummy Studies
Subtitle of host publication New Frontiers in Scientific and Cultural Perspectives,
EditorsDong Hoon Shin, Raffaella Bianucci
PublisherSpringer London
Pages1-63
Number of pages64
ISBN (Electronic)978-981-15-1614-6
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Feb 2021

Keywords

  • Egyptian mummies
  • Organic balms
  • Biomolecular analyses
  • Gender
  • Body position
  • Evolution of embalming
  • Age
  • Material type

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