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Complex organic chemical balms of Pharaonic animal mummies


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.

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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Richard P. Evershed.

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Buckley, S., Clark, K. & Evershed, R. Complex organic chemical balms of Pharaonic animal mummies. Nature 431, 294–299 (2004).

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