Egyptian mummy-making used oils and resins found only in Asia and African rainforests, scientists report

A team of Egyptian and German scientists analyzed samples from labeled pots and jars discovered in an ancient Egyptian embalming chamber, and their findings, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, revealed more than just mummification recipes. Some of the ingredients, like elemi and dammar resins, could only have been procured from far outside Egypt, suggesting the Egyptians of 2,600 years ago traded more extensively than previously known.

Dammar resin, for example, comes from Shorea trees that grow in the forests of India and Southeast Asia. The Canarium trees used to make elemi resin would have been found in African and Asian rainforests. Other ingredients, like the resin, oil, or tar of cypress, juniper, cedar, and Pistacia trees, would have been found elsewhere in the Mediterranean. "Egypt was resource poor in terms of many resinous substances, so many were procured or traded from distant lands," Carl Heron, an archaeologist at the British Museum, told Nature.

The samples were extracted from 31 of 121 ceramic vessels found at an underground embalming facility in the necropolis of Saqqara outside Cairo. The workshop, discovered in 2016, is believed to date back to 664 to 525 B.C. and would have served the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis in the 26th Dynasty. Some of the beakers and bowls and flasks had labels and instructions, like "to put on his head," "bandage or embalm with it," and "to make his odor pleasant."

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The research team studied the molecular structure of the samples using a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry machine. Along with the tree oils and resin, the scientists found beeswax, animal fats, and bitumen. Most of the ingredients have been found before in samples taken from actual mummies, or were written about in ancient texts on Egyptian mummification. But the elemi and dammar resins were new.

The really "fascinating part" of these discoveries, said Mahmoud Bahgat, a biochemist at the National Research Center in Cairo and a member of the research team, is that "if Egyptians went that far to get these particular natural products, from these particular countries and not other countries in between, it means they meant it," and knew enough about microbiology to understand these specific ingredients would fend off fungus and bacteria and preserve the body.

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