Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Complex organic chemical balms of Pharaonic animal mummies

Abstract

Millions of votive mummies of mammals, birds and reptiles were produced throughout ancient Egypt, with their popularity increasing during the reign of Amenhotep III (1400 bc) and thereafter. The scale of production has been taken to indicate that relatively little care and expense was involved in their preparation compared with human mummies1,2,3. The accepted view is that animals were merely wrapped in coarse linen bandages and/or dipped in ‘resin’ before death2,3,4. However, as with human mummification there was a range of qualities of treatments, and visual inspection of animal mummies suggests that the procedures used were often as complex as those used in humans (for example, evisceration and elaborate bandaging). Moreover, the ancient Egyptians treated animals with great respect, regarding them both as domestic pets and representatives of the gods; for example, the cat symbolized the goddess Bastet; the hawk, Horus; the ibis, Thoth, and so on. We report here the results of chemical investigations of tissues and wrappings from Pharaonic cat, hawk and ibis mummies using gas chromatography, gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, thermal desorption–gas chromatography–mass spectrometry and pyrolysis–gas chromatography–mass spectrometry5,6. The analyses reveal the presence of highly complex mixtures of n-alkyl and cyclic biomarker components characteristic of fats, oils, beeswax, sugar gum, petroleum bitumen, and coniferous, Pistacia and possibly cedar resins. The mixture of balms is of comparable complexity to those used to mummify humans from the same period6,7,8.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Photographs of animal mummies used in this investigation.
Figure 2: Histograms showing the distributions of alkyl lipids in balms of animal mummies.
Figure 3: Reconstructed gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC–MS) total ion chromatogram (TIC) of the trimethylsilylated acid fraction of blackened wrapping from the base of the mummy of the Late Pharaonic period cat.
Figure 4: Reconstructed GC–MS TIC of the trimethylsilylated neutral fraction of blackened wrapping from the base of the mummy of the Late Pharaonic period cat.
Figure 5: GC–MS selected ion monitoring mass chromatograms and star diagrams.

References

  1. Lucas, A. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, 4th edn (Histories and Mysteries of Man, London, 1989)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Malek, J. The Cat in Ancient Egypt (British Museum, London, 1997)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Brier, B. Egyptian Mummies (Michael O' Mara Books, London, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  4. Ikram, S. & Dodson, A. The Mummy in Ancient Egypt (Thames and Hudson, London, 1998)

    Google Scholar 

  5. Buckley, S. A., Stott, A. W. & Evershed, R. P. Studies of organic residues from ancient Egyptian mummies using high temperature gas chromatography mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption gas chromatography mass spectrometry and pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry. Analyst 124, 443–452 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Connan, J. & Dessort, D. Du bitumen dans les baumes des momies egpytiennes (1295 av JC-300 ap JC): determination de son origine et evaluation de sa quantite. C.R. Acad. Sci. Ser II 312, 1445–1452 (1991)

    Google Scholar 

  7. Buckley, S. A. & Evershed, R. P. Organic chemistry of embalming agents in Pharaonic and Graeco- Roman mummies. Nature 413, 837–841 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. Colombini, M. P., Modugno, F., Silvano, F. & Onor, M. Characterization of the balm of an Egyptian mummy from the 7th century B.C. Stud. Conserv. 45, 19–29 (2000)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Maurer, J., Möhring, T., Rullkötter, J. & Nissenbaum, A. Plant lipids and fossil hydrocarbons in embalming material of Roman Period mummies from the Dakhleh Oasis, Western Desert, Egypt. J. Archaeol. Sci. 29, 751–762 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Serpico, M. & White, R. in Chemical Analysis of Coniferous Resins from Ancient Egypt using Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) (ed. Eyre, C.) 1037–1048, (Proc. Seventh Intern. Congr. Egyptol., Leuven, 1998)

    Google Scholar 

  11. Koller, J., Baumer, U., Kaup, Y., Schmid, M. & Weser, U. Ancient materials - Analysis of a Pharaonic embalming tar. Nature 425, 784 (2003)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Gunstone, F. D., Harwood, J. L. & Padley, F. B. The Lipid Handbook (Chapman and Hall, London, 1986)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  13. Herodotus, The Histories (trans. De Sélincourt, A.) (Penguin, London, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  14. Lucas, A. “Cedar”- tree products employed in mummification. J. Egypt. Archaeol. XVII, 13–21 (1931)

    Google Scholar 

  15. Diodorus, The Library of History (trans. Oldfather, C. H.) (Heinemann, London, 1935)

    Google Scholar 

  16. Mills, J. S. & White, R. The identity of the resins from the Late Bronze-Age shipwreck at Ulu-Burun (Kas). Archaeometry 31, 37–44 (1989)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Serpico, M. & White, R. in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology (eds Nicholson, P. T. & Shaw, I.) 430–474 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  18. Evershed, R. P., Vaughan, S. J., Dudd, S. N. & Soles, J. S. Fuel for thought? Beeswax in lamps and conical cups from late Minoan Crete. Antiquity 71, 979–985 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Evershed, R. P., Dudd, S. N., Anderson-Stojanovic, V. R. & Gebhard, E. R. New chemical evidence for the use of combed ware pottery vessels as beehives in ancient Greece. J. Archaeol. Sci. 30, 1–12 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Regert, M., Colinart, S., Degrand, L. & Decavallas, O. Chemical alteration and use of beeswax through time: Accelerated ageing tests and analysis of archaeological samples from various environmental contexts. Archaeometry 43, 549–569 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Harrell, J. A. & Lewan, M. D. Sources of mummy bitumen in ancient Egypt and Palestine. Archaeometry 44, 285–293 (2002)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Connan, J. Use and trade of bitumen in antiquity and prehistory: molecular archaeology reveals secrets of past civilizations. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 354, 33–50 (1999)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Rullkötter, J. & Nissenbaum, A. Dead-Sea asphalt in Egyptian mummies - molecular evidence. Naturwissenschaften 75, 618–621 (1988)

    ADS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Koller, J., Baumer, U., Kaup, Y., Etspüler, H. & Weser, U. Embalming was used in Old Kingdom. Nature 391, 343–344 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank J. Hayward of Liverpool Museum for making the samples available to us. Thanks also go to J. Carter, I. Bull, A. Gledhill and B. van Dongen for their technical assistance. The National Gallery Scientific Laboratory is thanked for the gift of cedar oil. The NERC provided financial support for mass spectrometry facilities and a studentship to K.A.C.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard P. Evershed.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Buckley, S., Clark, K. & Evershed, R. Complex organic chemical balms of Pharaonic animal mummies. Nature 431, 294–299 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02849

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02849

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing