Ancient Egyptians had recipes for mummification all wrapped up

Embalming: A researcher has unearthed a recipe developed over centuries by the ancient Egyptians of a blend of spices, oils …

Embalming:A researcher has unearthed a recipe developed over centuries by the ancient Egyptians of a blend of spices, oils and resins needed to mummify a cat.

Dr Stephen Buckley of the University of York has also discovered the Egyptian recipes for producing mummies of the ibis, crocodile and humans. "The resins, oils and spices can all tell you something," he told a session of the BA festival of science in York.

Mummification was an important process and was expensive as many substances used were imported, he said. The Egyptians viewed it as "crucial" that the human body be fully preserved and a great deal of effort was put into developing embalming agents.

Some, including pine resin and cinnamon, were used because they had antibacterial activity, although the Egyptians had no idea about the nature of microbes, Dr Buckley said. They knew, however, that these substances could prevent decay and so were included in the embalming mix.


Dr Buckley has sampled the embalming substances from about 100 mummies and from animal mummifications. "I take a very small sample from the mummies and extract the oils, resins and spices using gas chromatography mass spectrometry. It gives you a clear fingerprint of the complex mixture."

A typical mummification involved removing the brain and organs and filling the cavity with the mixture. Beeswax, bitumen and other substances were used in the mummy wrappings to seal out moisture and further sealants might be used to coat the finished mummy.

The Egyptians used a "systematic approach" in their development of embalming materials and sampling showed that standard mixtures or recipes emerged. Surprisingly, this held true for the animals mummified to accompany the human deceased.

"There has been a tendency to see animal preparations as cheap and cheerful compared to humans," Dr Buckley said. This was not the case, as his study showed. "They took a fair bit of care with their animals. There was systematic, empirical experimentation in the animals. You are seeing clear patterns. You are seeing recipes." Knowing what materials were used provided useful information, he added. "It can tell you about geopolitics as much as about trade routes."

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.