Newly discovered Egyptian manual reveals secrets of mummification

Written around 1450 BC, it includes hitherto unknown details of this complex process.
A 3,500-year-old Egyptian text sheds new light on this ancestral mortuary rite. The papyrus studied by Egyptologist Sofie Schiødt of the University of Copenhagen is the oldest known mummification textbook, taken from a medical collection on much broader topics.

A COMPLEX MORTAL RITE


Made famous by fantasy cinema, Egyptian mummies have fascinated the scientific community for decades. But despite the many archaeological discoveries made since the 19th century, our understanding of the mummification process, which enabled these bandaged bodies to survive the millennia, is still incomplete.

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Its bases are, however, well known. In this practical and ritualistic process, priests set up a temporary workshop near the burial site. The body was purified, and its internal organs removed (the brain is taken out of the skull through the nose using a hook) and kept in unique jars, called canopic pots, which were then placed near the deceased.

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Then, for 70 days, the body was filled with spices and embalmed. For the first 35 days, the remains were immersed in a bath of natron (a natural mixture of sodium salts) to remove residual moisture. Over the next 35 days, the deceased was wrapped in linen bandages covered with gum, preventing water from entering and providing antimicrobial protection. After two days of funeral rites, the body was finally returned to the family for burial.

However, many details of the process still escaped historians. Like many ancient professions, knowledge was transmitted primarily orally and as a sacred enterprise. Priests fiercely guarded the secrets of mummification. There were two available manuals on this funeral rite until recently, but these documents mainly made it possible to ensure that the various manipulations were correctly carried out.

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In recent months, archaeologists have unearthed a golden-tongued mummy, while analysis of that of an ancient Egyptian king revealed he was executed on the battlefield – Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock.com.


The recent analysis by researchers at the University of Copenhagen is based on the third textbook on mummification, written around 1450 BC during Pharaoh Thutmose III (roughly a thousand years before the two previously discovered collections). This one includes much more detail on the process, including recipes and how to use different types of bandages, and extensively refers to placing a piece of red linen on the face of the deceased.


NEW DETAILS

“We have a list of ingredients for a preparation largely made up of aromatic substances and herbal binders that were cooked in a liquid, with which the embalmers coated a piece of red linen,” explains Schiødt. “This was applied to the face of the deceased to enclose him in a kind of protective cocoon of odorous and antibacterial materials. This treatment was then repeated four days apart. “

Fragment of the Louvre / Carlsberg papyrus – © The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection / University of Copenhagen
Part of the Louvre-Carlsberg Papyrus is considered the second longest medical papyrus ever discovered and dealing primarily with herbal medicine and skin diseases. The manual also provides details on some of the rituals involved during mummification, including 17 processions and performed during this process.

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According to Danish researchers, the wide range of topics covered would explain why the part dealing with mummification has only recently come to light. The papyrus contents are expected to be released in 2022 by the Louvre Museum and the Carlsberg Collection, which own both halves of the document.

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