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Nature. 2001 Oct 25;413(6858):837-41.

Organic chemistry of embalming agents in Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman mummies.

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Organic Geochemistry Unit, Biogeochemistry Research Centre, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol, Cantock's Close, UK.


Chemical treatments were an essential element of ancient Egyptian mummification. Although the inorganic salt natron is recognized as having a central role as a desiccant, without the application of organic preservatives the bodies would have decomposed in the humid environment of the tombs. The nature of the organic treatments remains obscure, because the ancient Egyptians left no written record of the process. Secondary textual evidence for mummification is provided by Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo and Pliny. The most important account is that of Herodotus (about 450 yr bc), although archaeological evidence shows that by this time the process had declined significantly and the best results had been achieved centuries before. His account mentions myrrh, cassia, palm wine, 'cedar oil' (still widely disputed) and 'gum'; however, it is vague with respect to the specific natural products used. Here we report the results of chemical investigations of a substantial collection of samples of tissues, wrappings and 'resinous/bituminous' materials from provenanced and dated Egyptian mummies. We focused on examples of the 'classic' mummy-making culture of the Pharaonic or dynastic period, from which we can begin to track the development of mummification chronologically.

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