Novel scientific detective work which was announced
in 2001 showed that ancient Egyptians used complex mixtures of plant
and animal extracts to embalm mummies.
The researchers, Dr Richard Evershed and Dr Stephen
Buckley, were able to uncover traces of a wide variety of materials,
including animal fats, plant oils, beeswax, and resins in minute
samples from thirteen specimens. It became apparent that ancient
embalmers mixed cheap and plentiful ingredients with exotic juniper
and cedar oils imported from the Middle East.
As time went by, they modified their recipes, choosing
those with the best antibacterial properties. The study which made these
findings was carried out by two chemists at Bristol University, UK,
on mummies spanning two thousand three hundred years of Egyptian history.
A variety of natural substances were found, some
previously unreported. The presence of plant oils (and to a lesser
extent animal fats) suggests that they were key ingredients in
The report in the journal Nature stated that they
were probably used as a less-costly base with which to mix and
apply more exotic embalming agents to their bodies and or
Entering the afterlife
Mummification was developed because the Egyptians
believed that no one could enter the afterlife unless the most
important part of the spirit, the 'ka', could return to the body.
The dead body therefore had to be protected from
decay and preserved in a recognisable form. After centuries of
experimentation, embalmers learned to remove decay-causing organs
and treat the body with substances such as salts, resins, cedar oil,
gum, honey, and bitumen which had drying and anti-microbial
It appears that fashion and cost may also have
influenced the choice of materials. Wealthy Egyptians may
deliberately have chosen the more expensive embalming fluid to
impress family and friends, just as well-to-do people today
select exotic woods and metal trims for their relatives' coffins.