Ancient Egyptian manual reveals new details about mummification

Ancient Egyptian manual reveals new details about mummification

Based on a manual recently discovered in a 3,500-year-old medical papyrus, University of Copenhagen Egyptologist Sofie Schiødt has been able to help reconstruct the embalming process used to prepare ancient Egyptians for the afterlife. It is the oldest surviving manual on mummification yet discovered.

Egyptian Manual mummification
Ancient Egyptian manual reveals new details about mummification: the papyrus contains new evidence of the procedure for embalming the deceased's face, where the face is covered with a piece of red linen and aromatic substances. Credits: Ida Christensen, University of Copenhagen

In ancient Egypt, embalming was considered a sacred art, and knowledge of the process was the preserve of very few individuals. Most secrets of the art were probably passed on orally from one embalmer to the other, Egyptologists believe, so written evidence is scarce; until recently, only two texts on mummification had been identified.

Egyptologists were therefore surprised to find a short manual on embalming in a medical text that is primarily concerned with herbal medicine and swellings of the skin. The manual has recently been edited by University of Copenhagen Egyptologist Sofie Schiødt:

- Many descriptions of embalming techniques that we find in this papyrus have been left out of the two later manuals, and the descriptions are extremely detailed. The text reads like a memory aid, so the intended readers must have been specialists who needed to be reminded of these details, such as unguent recipes and uses of various types of bandages. Some of the simpler processes, e.g. the drying of the body with natron, have been omitted from the text, Sofie Schiødt explains. She adds:

- One of the exciting new pieces of information the text provides us with concerns the procedure for embalming the dead person's face. We get a list of ingredients for a remedy consisting largely of plant-based aromatic substances and binders that are cooked into a liquid, with which the embalmers coat a piece of red linen. The red linen is then applied to the dead person's face in order to encase it in a protective cocoon of fragrant and anti-bacterial matter. This process was repeated at four-day intervals.

Although this procedure has not been identified before, Egyptologists have previously examined several mummies from the same period as this manual whose faces were covered in cloth and resin. According to Sofie Schiødt, this would fit well with the red linen procedure described in this manuscript.

Four was the key number

The importance of the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg manual in reconstructing the embalming process lies in its specification of the process being divided into intervals of four, with the embalmers actively working on the mummy every four days.

- A ritual procession of the mummy marked these days, celebrating the progress of restoring the deceased's corporeal integrity, amounting to 17 processions over the course of the embalming period. In between the four-day intervals, the body was covered with cloth and overlaid with straw infused with aromatics to keep away insects and scavengers, Sofie Schiødt says.

The Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg

The manuscript, which Sofie Schiødt has been working on for her PhD thesis, is the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg - so called because one half of the papyrus belongs to the Louvre Museum in Paris and the other half is part of the University of Copenhagen's Papyrus Carlsberg Collection. The two parts of the papyrus originally belonged to two private collectors, and several sections of it are still missing. Based on the palaeography, that is, the sign forms, the six metre long papyrus is dated to approximately 1450 BC, which means that it predates the only two other examples of embalming texts by more than a thousand years.

Section of the papyrus that deals with swellings of the skin. Credits: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection, University of Copenhagen

The bulk of the papyrus, which is the second-longest medical papyrus surviving from ancient Egypt, deals with herbal medicine and skin illnesses. Specifically, it contains the earliest-known herbal treatise, which provides descriptions of the appearance, habitat, uses, and religious significance of a divine plant and its seed as well as a lengthy treatise on swellings of the skin, which are seen as illnesses sent forth by the lunar god Khonsu.

The papyrus is planned for publication in 2022 as a collaboration between the Louvre Museum and the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection. Sofie Schiødt's PhD thesis "Medical Science in Ancient Egypt: A translation and interpretation of Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg (PLouvre E 32847 + PCarlsberg 917)", was defended 8 February 2021.

The embalming process

The embalming, which was performed in a purpose-built workshop erected near the grave, took place over 70 days that were divided into two main periods - a 35-day drying period and a 35-day wrapping period.

During the drying period, the body was treated with dry natron both inside and outside. The natron treatment began on the fourth day of embalming after the purification of the body, the removal of the organs and the brain, and the collapsing of the eyes.

The second 35-day period was dedicated to the encasing of the deceased in bandages and aromatic substances. The embalming of the face described in the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg belonged to this period.

The entire 70-day embalming process was divided into intervals of 4 days, with the mummy being finished on day 68 and then placed in the coffin, after which the final days were spent on ritual activities allowing the deceased to live on in the afterlife.


Press release from the University of Copenhagen on the ancient Egyptian manual on mummification.

The shoulders of 'Homo antecessor' and modern humans are similar

The shoulders of 'Homo antecessor' and modern humans are similar

The CENIEH has published a paper in the journal Scientific Reports which concludes that Homo antecessor had a shoulder development analogous to that in H. sapiens, although its growth was faster
Homo antecessor shoulders
Homo antecessor scapulae. Credits: D. Garcia Martínez et al

The shape of our shoulders was already present in the Lower Pleistocene, according to a pioneering study published today in the journal Scientific Reports, carried out by Daniel García Martínez and José María Bermúdez de Castro, paleoanthropologists at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), in collaboration with David Green of Campbell University (USA).

Studying the shoulder (technically known as the "shoulder girdle") furnishes information on points significant for human evolution such as locomotion, body shape, the possibility of climbing with ease or the ability to launch objects like stones or spears with high accuracy.

The authors of this work were able to study for the first time shoulder growth and development in the species Homo antecessor, dated to 850,000 years old, using tools from virtual anthropology and 3D geometric morphometry. The results show that the course of development of the shoulder in this species was very similar to that in H. sapiens, although the growth might have been faster.

Almost one million years ago, our evolution had already attained almost all the biomechanical capacities characterizing the shoulder in modern humans, and it had definitively parted ways from the abilities still then retained by the more archaic species of the human phylogeny, including climbing with great agility.

 To verify the changes undergone by this part of our anatomy, we need a flat bone: the shoulder blade or scapula. But, as the authors of this study state, “The fossil record of our phylogeny contains barely a handful of these highly delicate bones, which has posed enormous difficulties to studying the growth and development of the shoulders during human evolution”.

Two key fossils

By good luck, at level TD6 of the Gran Dolina site, situated in the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos), two scapulae have been conserved: one from a child and the other from an individual of age equivalent to a modern adolescent. These fossils were recovered during the excavation in the first decade of the twenty-first century and belonged to the species H. antecessor.

“In an earlier study of these two fossils, it had been noticed that the morphology of the scapulae was similar to our own. But until now, the growth and development model for the shoulders had remained unknown, and this work has now allowed us to check that our shoulder girdle bones have undergone modifications in accordance with different capacities”, says Bermúdez de Castro.

Comparative study

With the scant information available, it was known that the scapulae of Australopithecus species were similar in some ways to those of chimpanzees or gorillas but were different from our own. “We know that the development of our most archaic ancestors was very similar to that of the anthropoid apes, and the morphology of their shoulders shows that they still retained the capacity to climb with ease. We, on the contrary, have lost this ability”, explains García Martínez.

Comparative of scapulae. Credits: D.García Martínez et al

To determine when our anatomical peculiarities arose, in addition to virtual anthropology and 3D geometric morphometry, the researchers used complex statistical methods to study the development of the shoulder girdle in the species H. antecessor, comparing it with other species from the Pliocene and Lower Pleistocene, such as Australopithecus sediba and A. afarensis. A very broad sample from H. sapiens and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) was also used.

“This study shows that although there exist slight morphological differences between the scapulae of H. antecessor and H. sapiens, the former were much more similar to modern humans, to H. erectus and even to Australopithecus than to chimpanzees”, comments García Martínez.

With regard to how the scapulae grew, it was also seen that this was very different from what happens in chimpanzees, and comparable with H. sapiens. “However, it is true that the data seem to point to growth being more rapid in H. antecessor, as highlighted by the CENIEH research team on the basis of dental evidence”, emphasizes Bermúdez de Castro.

This paper lays the foundations for how the shoulder girdle developed in Lower Pleistocene species, and opens the door to new research studying shoulder development in fossil species, as it may become possible to expand the timeframe and study this development even in Pliocene species like the genus Australopithecus.

Full bibliographic information

García-Martínez, D., Green, D., Bermúdez de Castro, J.M. 2021. Evolutionary development of the Homo antecessor scapulae (Gran Dolina site, Atapuerca) suggests a modern-like development for Lower Pleistocene Homo. Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-83039


Press release from CENIEH