Stephen Buckley
Research Fellow

Profile

Biography

I obtained my first degree in Chemistry (BSc, University of Sheffield), before taking a MSc in Analytical Chemistry and Instrumentation at Loughborough University of Technology (the research project for my masters being entitled ‘Identification of the Mummification ‘Resins’ Employed in Ancient Egypt in an Early 18th Dynasty Tomb in the Valley of the Kings’), followed by a PhD in archaeological chemistry, on the embalming materials used in ancient Egyptian mummification, from the University of Bristol. As part of York University’s Mummy Research Team (set up in 1999), I worked on archaeological projects in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt, the Yemeni Highlands, north-west of Sana’a, Rome, and a number of museums,  before becoming a Wellcome Research Fellow in Bioarchaeology in 2004 (joint Archaeology and Chemistry) based at Archaeology’s BioArch Centre.

Publications

Selected publications

Evershed RP; Dudd SN; Copley MS; Berstan R; Stott AW; Mottram H; Buckley SA; Crossman Z Chemistry of archaeological animal fats ACCOUNTS OF CHEMICAL RESEARCH 2002, Vol 35, Iss 8, pp 660-668


Buckley SA; Evershed RP Organic chemistry of embalming agents in Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman mummies NATURE 2001, Vol 413, Iss 6858, pp 837-841


Buckley SA; Stott AW; Evershed RP Studies of organic residues from ancient Egyptian mummies using high temperature gas chromatography mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption gas chromatography mass spectrometry and pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry ANALYST 1999, Vol 124, Iss 4, pp 443-452

Research

Overview

My interests concern the use of chemical methods to understand the process of mummification, and relate this to the materials employed for both practical considerations and symbolic factors being driven by religious and cultural ‘needs’. The ancient Egyptians believed the soul could not survive in the afterlife if it didn't recognize its body. Through chemical analysis, it has been possible to gain insights into how the Egyptian embalmers worked. They used mixtures of plant oils and resins with anti-microbial properties, such as conifer, Pistacia and balsamic tree resins. These substances killed bacteria that would have decomposed the bodies. They also used materials conveying a powerful symbolic significance in order to associate themselves with particular deities or political affiliations (e.g. sheep/goat fat with the Theban god Amun). 

The overall findings to date reveal the Egyptians had a surprising level of scientific sophistication. The so-called ‘art’ of the embalmers clearly improved (and sometimes regressed) over time – my current work on Egyptian burials has covered a time span of 4,500 years.

My current fellowship, entitled ‘Evidence for the systematic use of antimicrobial and insecticidal natural products in ancient Egyptian burial practices’ reflects this interest and the clear need for more work in this area.

I am also interested in how other cultures treatment of their deceased mirrors or differs from ancient Egyptian burial practices over time, and to this end I am currently studying mummies from 4 continents. The Near East and Arabia, with their close proximity to Egypt are of particular interest and form part of my current research. 

Despite being primarily a lab-based scientist, I believe that experience in the field is vital if a good understanding of the archaeological context (and so the significance for the biomolecular archaeology) is to be obtained. To this end I have been an archaeological chemist for excavations in the Valley of the Kings since 1993 being involved in Tomb KV39 and more recently the ongoing Tomb KV35 Project.

More widely, I am interested in the use of analytical chemistry to study the use of plant and animal derived organic materials (primarily residues) in a range of archaeological contexts.

Current projects

 

 

  • Evidence for the systematic use of antimicrobial and insecticidal natural products in ancient Egyptian burial practices (funded by the Wellcome Trust)
  • Yemeni Mummy Project - A joint collaboration between York and Sana'a University (funding from the Institute for Bioarchaeology and the Leigh Douglas Memorial Fund)
  • ‘Bitumenised’ burials, Tel es-Sa’idiyeh, Jordan (a joint collaboration with UCL and the British Museum)
  • Irish Bog Bodies (in collaboration with the National Museum of Ireland)
  • E:SI - Egyptology: Science & Investigation – a NESTA funded three year project in collaboration with Harrogate Museum & Arts
  • Tomb KV35 in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt – mummification practices. An official report on the X-raying of three mummies from the tomb, the scientific findings and conclusions, with updated hypotheses clearly stated [the original project and hypotheses being first conceived in 1990], was submitted to the SCA in March 2003

Official report to SCA on the KV35 Project (MS Word  , 54kb) 

  • Tomb KV39 in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt – materials & mummification

 

Teaching

Undergraduate

First year



Second year



Third year



External activities

Memberships

  • NESTA in partnership with Harrogate Museum (lead partner) E:SI – Egyptology: Science & Investigation
  • awarded 2006 Welcome Research Fellowship in Bioarchaeology
  • awarded 2004 Leigh Douglas Memorial Fund – for Yemeni archaeological research
  • awarded 2004 National Geographic – for Yemeni archaeological research (chemical analysis)
  • 2002 - 2004: Joint-curated the exhibition ‘Treasures of Ancient Egypt’ at Harrogate Museum with Dr. Joann Fletcher, looking at the archaeological and historical significance of recent scientific findings from Harrogate’s Egyptian collection
  • 2002: Assistant Director & Archaeological Chemist, Tomb KV39 Excavations, Valley of the Kings, Egypt
  • 2002: Archaeological Chemist, Yemeni Mummy Project, Yemen
  • 2002-03: Archaeological Chemist, Tomb KV35 Project, Valley of the Kings, Egypt

Invited talks and conferences

  • June 2006: ‘National Museum of Ireland Bog Bodies Research Project’ conference, Dublin, Ireland. ‘Analysis of the hair and hairstyle of Clonycavan Man’ oral presentation
  • May 2006: Mummy Workshop, Leiden University, Holland ‘Exposed to the elements: the chemical investigation of mummies’ (International scientific experts on mummies talking to Leiden’s brightest students)
  • May 2005: Hay Literary Festival 2005. ‘The Search for Nefertiti’ with Dr. Joann Fletcher
  • April 2005: ‘Leading lights’ presentation with Dr. Joann Fletcher on ‘The Search for Nefertiti’ at the Edinburgh International Science Festival 2005 (the other two ‘Leading Lights’ that year being Richard Dawkins and David Bodanis)
  • Feb 2005: CCLRC Daresbury Laboratory ‘Talking Science’ lecture series. ‘The Search for Nefertiti: an X-rayted Story’
  • Oct 2004: ‘In Pursuit of Excellence’ lecture series, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, hosted by Beaumont Hospital, Detroit, U.S.A. ‘KV35 Project’ (previous ‘In Pursuit of Excellence’ speakers were James Watson, Buzz Aldrin and oceanographer Robert Ballard)
  • Feb 2004: Café Scientific public lecture ‘The ‘art’ of Egyptian mummification: a no-brainer?’ Aug 2003: Special lecture, Tomb KV35 Project, The Smithsonian, Washington D.C., U.S.A. Nov 2002: KV.39 Project, Bloomsbury Day School,

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Contact details

Dr Stephen Buckley
Research Fellow
Department of Archaeology
University of York
The King's Manor
York
YO1 7EP