Reimagining the mummification process


Words by Ben Nour

In what has been considered by scholars worldwide as groundbreaking work, Dr Jana Jones, a Macquarie University Research Fellow, and her colleagues from the University of York and Oxford have uncovered evidence proving previously held knowledge of the origins of the mummification process is wrong.

Grapeshot spoke to Dr Jana Jones about her findings and what they reveal about Ancient Egyptian mummification.

Ben: What have you and your colleagues discovered about the origins of mummification?

Jana: Well, the [previously] accepted date for the beginning of mummification was about 2500BC. Artificial mummification entailed taking out the organs, except the heart, and then wrapping them. The body was then packed in natron, a naturally occurring salt that desiccates [removes the moisture from] the body. After forty days the body was packed with aromatic substances, and then the embalming mixtures were applied, which stops bacteria and preserves the body, before finally the body is wrapped.

That’s artificial mummification, which is not supposed to have begun until 2500BC. What I’ve found is that they were doing this 1500 years before that.

B: Could you tell me about the science behind this discovery?

J: Biochemical analysis that my colleagues and I have conducted, identified the components of embalming substances on 6000 year-old funerary textiles from Late Neolithic Egypt. The substances were complex, processed ‘recipes’, that consist of a plant oil or animal fat ‘base’, with smaller amounts of a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract,  a plant gum/sugar and a natural petroleum source.

The same natural products, in similar proportions, were used by the ancient embalmers in pharaonic mummification when it was at its zenith in the New Kingdom, some 2500 to 3000 years later.


B: Why was there no change to the embalming recipe over this huge time period?

J: Well that’s the question! Ancient Egyptians were very conservative, but at the same time we know there were experiments and changes in the process of mummification. That’s what my research focus is going to be on, whether there were any changes in these 3000 years.

B: How come it’s only taken until now for this scientific evidence to turn up? And how did this research come about? 

J: Because nobody had thought of it!

I first put forward this theory in 2001 and then published in 2002 but without any scientific evidence.

I had been working at various sites in Egypt looking at funerary textiles and I found that there was resin in the wrappings from around 3000BC at an Early Dynastic site. I then went to a site older than that, dated to about 3,400 BC. There were three bodies that had their necks wrapped and the jaw and hands, and the hands were clasped together and very tightly wrapped. With my microscope, I could see that there was resin there. So, we were looking at 3000BC and then going back to 3400BC, and I questioned why couldn’t it have started earlier.

B: Will your discovery have impacts on other areas of Egyptology?

J: Yes, I think so. It alters our thinking about these prehistoric people, because this is a thousand years before writing. There are no written records and we tend to think of them as, I won’t use the word ‘primitive’, but not as sophisticated as they were later in the pharaonic period.

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