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Science

Hidden Egyptian handbook reveals secrets of mummification

A 3,500-year-old Egyptian medical text is shedding new light on the ancient practice of mummification. Recently discovered inside a much larger work, the papyrus document being studied by University of Copenhagen Egyptologist Sofie Schiødt is the oldest known mummification manual.

If there is one thing about ancient Egypt that has captured the popular imagination, it's mummies. These wrapped and preserved bodies have survived for thousands of years, inspiring whole genres of romantic and horror fiction alongside the interest of the scientific community, but even today our understanding of exactly how they were made is incomplete.

The basics of mummification are well-known. In a process that was partly practical and partly ritual, priests set up a temporary workshop near the burial site. They then purified the body and the internal organs were removed with the brain being extracted from the skull through the nose with a hook. These were stored in special jars that were interred with the body.

Then, over a 70-day period, the body was then stuffed with spices and embalmed. For 35 days, it was packed in powdered natron, which is a natural mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, and sodium sulfate that drew off the water from the cadaver.

Over the next 35 days the body was wrapped in linen bandages covered in gum, which both kept out water and acted as an anti-microbial protection. After a final two days of funeral rites, the body was then returned to the family for burial.

But there are many details of the process that aren't known. This is because, like many crafts, knowledge was passed down orally through apprenticeships. On top of that, mummification was a sacred undertaking and the priests carefully guarded their secrets. Until recently, there were two known manuals on mummification, but these are more memory aids to ensure that details were carried out properly.

The Copenhagen study is based on a third mummification manual that is older than the previously known texts by a thousand years, with many more details included about the process, including recipes and how to use different types of bandages. It also includes details on the practice of placing a piece of red linen over the deceased's face.

"One of the exciting new pieces of information the text provides us with concerns the procedure for embalming the dead person’s face," says Schiødt. "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."

The manual also provides details of some of the rituals involved in mummification, with 17 processions carried out every four days during the process.

The manual was unnoticed until recently because it's part of the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg, which was written in about the year 1450 BCE during the reign of Thutmoses III in the 18th Dynasty. It's the second longest medical papyrus yet found and deals mainly with herbal medicine and skin diseases, so the topic of mummies wasn't an obvious one to look out for.

The papyrus is scheduled to be published in 2022 by the Louvre Museum and the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection, which own the two halves of the document.

Source: University of Copenhagen

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1 comment
CAVUMark
Did the manual have any information on eczema?