The ancient Egyptian practice of mummification may date back 1,500 years earlier than previously thought, an Australian-led study has discovered.
The findings, led by Macquarie University researchers and based on studies of bodies found in ancient Egyptian graves from up to 6,000 years ago, is published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
Previous research suggests that mummification began about 2,200BC, but the new research indicates the practice was already happening between 4,500BC and 3,350BC.
“We’ve found experimentation in preservation was taking place in a tribal, prehistoric society some 1,500 years before the practice was regularly accepted to have begun,” said Dr Jana Jones, of Macquarie University.
Jones said the artefacts the team studied were excavated from tombs in Badari and Mostagedda in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s, and displayed in Britain’s Bolton Museum.
She visited the museum and found that the samples, some dating back to 4,500BC, had not been archaeologically analysed in 80 years.
Jones found signs of a complex, processed mixture in the funerary linen samples that included aromatic plant extract, a plant gum and a natural petroleum source – a resin commonly used for mummification much later on.
“There was no fundamental change in the embalming mixture used some 3,000 years later,” she said.
“The differences lay in substitution of an ingredient, but it already contained the empirical science that would become true mummification.”
Jones was allowed to take 92 samples back to Australia for more analysis.
The bodies were found in the more extravagant graves, suggesting only the privileged people in this ancient society were preserved.
“They were in graves that had more offerings than others,” Jones said. “Such as a child buried with a pet gazelle and a lot of jewellery.
“I believe they were special members of a society.”
Jones said bodies were not completely mummified in these findings.
“Certain parts of the body such as head or the hands were treated in this [preservation] mixture,” she said.
“We’re looking at a time that was 1,000 years before writing, but we’re understanding they really had an understanding of the science.”
Source : theguardian