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.


Egypt gynaeocological

Scientists find evidence of the oldest gynaecological treatment on record, performed in ancient Egypt 4,000 years ago

Scientists find evidence of the oldest gynaecological treatment on record, performed in ancient Egypt 4,000 years ago

Scientists from the Universities of Granada and Jaén are studying the physical evidence found in the mummified remains of a woman who suffered severe trauma to the pelvis in 1878–1797 BC, linking them to a medical treatment described in various Egyptian medical papyri of the time

Egypt gynaeocological
Important damage to the pubis

During the Qubbet el-Hawa Project, led by the University of Jaén (UJA) in Aswan (Egypt), in which scientists from the University of Granada (UGR) are participating, researchers have found evidence of the oldest gynaecological treatment on record, performed on a woman who lived in Ancient Egypt some 4,000 years ago and died in 1878–1797 BC.

During the 2017 archaeological dig organised in Qubbet el-Hawa, on the western bank of the River Nile, Andalusian researchers found a vertical shaft dug into the rock in tomb QH34, leading to a burial chamber with ten intact skeletons.

Mummification techniques were not very effective at that time, at least at this site in Upper Egypt. However, the individuals buried there generally belonged to the upper classes of society meaning that they would have been given special care. These particular mummies are very well-preserved and are wrapped in thick layers of linen strips, sometimes bearing remnants of dried soft tissue.

“The mummies had grave goods (usually necklaces of different types); in some cases, their faces were covered with cartonnage masks; and they were preserved inside two rectangular sarcophagi, one inside the other. These featured hieroglyphic inscriptions and were typically badly damaged due to termite infestation,” explains Miguel Botella, forensic anthropologist and Emeritus Professor at the UGR, who conducted the analyses.

The last mummy buried

One of the mummies excavated by the team of anthropologists was perhaps the last to be buried in the chamber. It belonged to a woman of high social class, whose name, Sattjeni, has been preserved in the remains of the outer coffin. That name must have been common among the upper classes of the region, perhaps explaining why she was named Sattjeni A.

Between her bandaged legs, in the lower part of the pelvis and beneath the linen wrappings, the researchers found a ceramic bowl with signs of use, containing charred organic remains. The analysis of the skeletal remains was carried out by a team of anthropologists from the UGR (coordinated by Professor Botella) and it confirmed that the woman had survived a serious fracture in her pelvis, perhaps caused by a fall, which must have caused severe pain.

It is highly likely that, to alleviate these pains, the woman was treated with fumigations, as described in medical papyri of the time describing solutions to gynaecological problems.

“The most interesting feature of the discovery made by the researchers from the University of Jaén is not only the documentation of a palliative gynaecological treatment, something that is quite unique in Egyptian archaeology, but also the fact that this type of treatment by fumigation was described in contemporary medical papyri. But, until now, there had been no evidence found to prove that such treatment was actually carried out,” explains the UJA’s Dr. Alejandro Jimenez, an expert in Egyptology and director of the Qubbet el-Hawa Project. This work has now been published by one of the most prestigious academic journals in EgyptologyZeitschrift für Ägyptische Spracheund Altertumskunde.

The project was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Research, Fundación Gaselec, Fundación Palarq, the Calderón Group, and the Spanish Association of Egyptology.

 

Press release from the University of Granada on the mummified remains of a woman in Aswan (Egypt) who suffered severe trauma to the pelvis and received gynaecological treatment.


Hyksos, 15th Dynasty rulers of Ancient Egypt, were an internal takeover

Hyksos, 15th Dynasty rulers of Ancient Egypt, were an internal takeover

Chemical analysis reveals Egypt was a multi-cultural hub for centuries

Hyksos 15th Dynasty
Seal amulet with the name of the Hyksos pharoah Apophis. Credits: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0

The Hyksos, who ruled during the 15th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, were not foreign invaders, but a group who rose to power from within, according to a study published July 8, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Chris Stantis of Bournemouth University, UK and colleagues.

The Hyksos were a foreign dynasty that ruled parts of Egypt between approximately 1638-1530 BCE, the first instance of Egypt being ruled by individuals of a foreign origin. The common story is that the Hyksos were invaders from a far-off land, but this idea has been drawn into question. Archaeological evidence does link Hyksos culture with an origin in the Near East, but exactly how they rose to power is unclear.

In this study, Stantis and colleagues collected enamel samples from the teeth of 75 humans buried in the ancient Hyksos capital city of Tell el-Dab'a in the northeast Nile Delta. Comparing ratios of strontium isotopes in the teeth to environmental isotope signatures from Egypt and elsewhere, they assessed the geographic origins of the individuals who lived in the city. They found that a large percentage of the populace were non-locals who immigrated from a wide variety of other places. This pattern was true both before and during the Hyksos dynasty.

This pattern does not match the story of a sudden invasion from a single far-off land, but of a multi-cultural region where one internal group - the Hyksos - eventually rose to power after living there for generations. This is the first study to use archaeological chemistry to address the origins of the Hyksos rulers, but the authors note that more investigations and broader chemical techniques will be needed to identify the specific ancestries of the Hyksos and other non-local residents of Egypt.

Stantis adds: "Archaeological chemistry, specifically isotopic analysis, shows us first-generation migration during a time of major cultural transformations in ancient Egypt. Rather than the old scholastic theories of invasion, we see more people, especially women, migrating to Egypt before Hyksos rule, suggesting economic and cultural changes leading to foreign rule rather than violence."

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Egypt pigment Egyptian blue

A pigment from ancient Egypt to modern microscopy

A pigment from ancient Egypt to modern microscopy

Göttingen research team produces new nanosheets for near infrared imaging

Egypt pigment Egyptian blue
Egyptian blue: the researchers obtained the nanosheets from this powder. Credits: University of Göttingen

Egyptian blue is one of the oldest manmade colour pigments. It adorns, for instance, the crown of the world famous bust of Nefertiti. But the pigment can do even more. An international research team led by Dr Sebastian Kruss from the Institute of Physical Chemistry at the University of Göttingen has produced a new nanomaterial based on the Egyptian blue pigment, which is ideally suited for applications in imaging using near infrared spectroscopy and microscopy. The results have been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Microscopy and optical imaging are important tools in basic research and biomedicine. They use substances that can release light when excited. Known as "fluorophores", these substances are used to stain very small structures in samples, enabling clear resolution using modern microscopes. Most fluorophores shine in the range of light visible to humans. When using light in the near infrared spectrum, with a wavelength starting at 800 nanometres, light penetrates even deeper into tissue and there are fewer distortions to the image. So far, however, there are only a few known fluorophores that work in the near infrared spectrum.

The research team has now succeeded in exfoliating extremely thin layers from grains of calcium copper silicate, also known as Egyptian blue. These nanosheets are 100,000 times thinner than a human hair and fluoresce in the near infrared range. "We were able to show that even the smallest nanosheets are extremely stable, shine brightly and do not bleach," says Dr Sebastian Kruss, "making them ideal for optical imaging."

The scientists tested their idea for microscopy in animals and plants. For example, they followed the movement of individual nanosheets in order to visualise mechanical processes and the structure of the tissue around cell nuclei in the fruit fly. In addition, they integrated the nanosheets into plants and were able to identify them even without a microscope, which promises future applications in the agricultural industry. "The potential for state-of-the-art microscopy from this material means that new findings in biomedical research can be expected in the future," says Kruss.

Egypt pigment Egyptian blue
Near-infrared image of nanosheets taken from a plant. Credits: University of Göttingen

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The study involved scientists from the Institute of Physical Chemistry, the Third Institute of Physics, the Department of Developmental Biochemistry and the Institute of Geology as well as the Department of Dermatology, Venereology and Allergology of the University Medical Center Göttingen and the University of California Riverside.

Original publication: Selvaggio et al. "Exfoliated near infrared fluorescent silicate nanosheets for (bio)photonics". Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-15299-5

See also - https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-15299-5

 

 

Press release "A pigment from ancient Egypt to modern microscopy" from the University of Göttingen