Inside the Middle East

Prehistoric Egyptians mummified bodies 1,500 years before the pharaohs

Egyptian mummy Museo Egizio 3

Editor’s Note: Jana Jones is an egyptologist and research fellow in the department of ancient history at Australia’s Macquarie University.

CNN  — 

Ancient Egypt continues to bring to light one fabulous surprise after another.

Last month, my colleagues and I published our analysis of an intact Egyptian prehistoric body, dating from around 3,700 to 3,500 BC, that had been housed in the Museo Egizio (Egyptian Museum) in Turin, Italy, since 1901. The results provide strong evidence that Egyptian mummification techniques – long associated with the time of the pharaohs – date back to 1,500 years earlier.

Before this, it was assumed that the dead man had been naturally mummified by the desiccating action of the hot, dry desert sand. But now we know he was deliberately preserved.

Together with our previous research, this new information tells us that the prehistoric Egyptians, living at the time the man died, already had knowledge of the processes required to preserve the body, and practiced a developed religious belief system about the afterlife.

The mummy was stored in the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy.

We had hints

Prior to this new study, our analysis of funerary wrappings from prehistoric bodies found in sites in central Egypt proved that people who lived before the time of the pharaohs used some body preservation techniques.

Reports of pellets of resin, found in pouches with the bodies in early burials excavated at prehistoric sites at Badari and Mostagedda in Middle Egypt (circa 4,500 to 3,350 BC), had made me wonder whether they were already using resin in a rudimentary form of mummification.

Resin is a substance harvested from certain trees, particularly pine, and is a preservative component of embalming mixtures.

In our previous work we did not have whole bodies – only small fragments of linen conserved in British museums. These pieces of fabric – donated by excavators in the early 20th century in return for excavation funds – were the only surviving evidence the bodies had been wrapped.

Working with archaeological chemist Stephen Buckley, my colleague Ron Oldfield and I identified resin in the wrappings.

But we didn’t have any further samples to expand this work – until now.

Preparing for the afterlife

The central tenet of ancient Egyptian mummification was preservation of a perfect body, so that it could enter into the afterlife as a complete entity. If a crocodile had bitten off a leg, a wooden prosthesis would be substituted.

Most wrapped bodies at prehistoric sites did not come under intense scrutiny when excavated, because in the 19th and early 20th centuries interest was overwhelmingly in the artifacts. Furthermore, there had been no reason to believe that the prehistoric Egyptians were using any preservative balms on their dead.

During this period, the Italians were conducting excavations to fill the Museo Egizio. Perhaps the best-known Italian archaeologist is Ernesto Schiaparelli, director of the museum between 1895 and 1928.

A member of Ernesto Schiaparelli's team at the tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens.

Schiaparelli went on a number of missions to Egypt to excavate and purchase mummies and artifacts from antiquities dealers, including the prehistoric body in this current study (identified as “Turin S. 293, RCGE 16550”), bought between 1900 and 1901.

It is one of only 20 bodies of this period (circa 3,600 BC) now kept in international museums. Although there are few written records on the body’s provenance, Gebelein in Middle Egypt is the most probable source.

A recipe for preservation

In 2014, a research grant from Macquarie University afforded a unique opportunity to forensically examine this Turin mummy.

Working with an international team, we took minute samples of textile and skin for biochemical analysis, radiocarbon dating, textile analysis and DNA analysis of disease causing bacteria.

Close-up of linen fibers the Turin mummy was wrapped in for burial.

The mummy had not undergone conservation in the museum which meant that contamination was minimal, making him an ideal subject for scientific investigation. The downside of him not having been conserved is that he is extremely fragile and damaged.

Chemical analysis of the residues on the textile wrappings from the torso and wrist, using a technique known as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, revealed the presence of a plant oil or animal fat, a sugar or gum, a conifer resin and an aromatic plant extract.

The resin and aromatic plant extracts are the two main antibacterial components that would have repelled insects and preserved the soft tissue underneath. Chemical signatures indicate gentle heating, so it was indeed a “recipe” that was probably applied by dipping the linen into the melted mixture and then wrapping.

Egyptian ingenuity

Radiocarbon dating of linen – one sample each from the body and the basket of fragments accompanying the body – gave a date range of around 3,700 to 3,500 BC. Both samples shared the same early spinning technology observed in Egyptian linen between about 5,000 BC and 3600 BC, when a momentous change in the direction of the spin took place.

Close-up of basket fibers found with the Turin mummy, indicating a "prehistoric" spin direction.

No bacterial DNA was detected by genetic analysis, probably because it had not survived the environmental conditions in either Egypt or the museum (which, until recently, was not climate-controlled).

As a result, we do not know whether the man died from an infectious disease. Furthermore, his extremely fragile state prevented him from being moved for X-ray analysis.

Together with our previous research, the information gleaned from this complete mummy tells us that the prehistoric Egyptians already had knowledge of the processes required to preserve the body, as well as a developed religious belief system about the afterlife.

They had access to resins from the Eastern Mediterranean, suggesting long-distance trade. That similar components were used in the balms in burials 200 km (125 miles) apart and, indeed, continued to be used in similar proportions during the pharaonic period, some 2,500 years later, when embalming skills were at their peak, shows the enduring nature of ancient Egyptian ingenuity.