The significance of petroleum bitumen in ancient Egyptian mummies

Author's Department

Sociology, Egyptology & Anthropology Department

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Document Type

Research Article

Publication Title

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences

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© 2016 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved. Mummification was practised in ancient Egypt for more than 3000 years, emerging from initial observations of buried bodies preserved by natural desiccation. The use of organic balms (and other funerary practices) was a later introduction necessitated by more humid burial environments, especially tombs. The dark colour of many mummies led to the assumption that petroleum bitumen (or natural asphalt) was ubiquitous in mummification; however, this has been questioned for more than 100 years. We test this by investigating 91 materials comprising balms, tissues and textiles from 39 mummies dating from ca 3200 BC to AD 395. Targeted petroleum bitumen biomarker (steranes and hopanes) analyses by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry selected ion monitoring (GC-MS SIM, m/z 217 and 191) showed no detectable bitumen use before the New Kingdom (ca 1550-1070 BC). However, bitumen was used in 50% of New Kingdom to Late Period mummies, rising to 87% of Ptolemaic/Roman Period mummies. Quantitative determinations using 14C analyses reveal that even at peak use balms were never more than 45% w/w bitumen. Critically, the dark colour of balms can be simulated by heating/ageing mixtures of fats, resins and beeswax known to be used in balms. The application of black/dark brown balms to bodies was deliberate after the New Kingdom reflecting changing funerary beliefs and shifts in religious ideology.

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