The Kingdom Inside a Mummy
The Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, a part of the same complex as the embalming workshop. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)
Arthur C. Clarke once said “Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.” To the embalmers of the ancient Egyptian mummies, their work was spiritual. Their ritualistic preservation and anointing of a body allowed its soul to pass easily into the afterlife, but this task was not simply a religious ceremony. Embalming was a complicated scientific process, requiring an extensive knowledge of the body and preservatives. These funeral rites were a union between these two very different worlds of the scientific and the religious. Today, our own scientists are still discovering much from these mummies left behind.
Recent studies at the Saqqara workshop 20 miles outside of Cairo have given new insight into the embalming process of the ancient Egyptians. While the Egyptian names of the substances used in embalming had been known for some time, it was not clear what exactly they corresponded to. A careful examination of the residue left behind in clay pots and bowls has solved this lingering problem, providing new insights into the embalming process. Moreover, by tracing the origins of these substances, one can reconstruct the economy and trading routes of the 26th Dynasty, from 664-525 BCE.
Anubis, the Egyptian God of the Dead, practicing the traditional funeral rites. (Source: Canadian Museum of History)
The Saqqara workshop is divided into three parts: the wabet, where parts of the body would be eviscerated and cut in preparation for preservation; the ibu where the embalming work was done; and the communal burial spaces where the common people would be laid to rest. This was a religious site, but its organization was surprisingly bureaucratic, with clay jars labeled by their contents, where they were to be applied, and even the name of the workshop’s administrator. From these pots we get the ancient Egyptian names for the substances within. Tars, resins, oils, and even animal fats were all used in the embalming process.
With the use of mass spectrometric analysis, the study was able to pinpoint the exact compounds found within these substances, their use in the preservation process, and where they originated from. For example, bitumen, a form of petroleum, was found in two vessels within the complex. Its composition suggests it originated near the Dead Sea, hundreds of miles away. As such, one can begin to speculate on the trade routes and economy supporting the burial site. These substances wouldn’t be had easily, but would instead rely on trade, refineries and mines to create.
Through these studies, one can learn much about the individual mummies (their status, their wealth), but also the wider society they lived in. Mummies were often the remains of Egyptian royalty, their bodies preserved so that they could go on to become gods in the afterlife. Within these remains are the traces of the kingdoms these royals presided over, economies and trade networks manifesting themselves in their preserved bodies.