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Embalming study shortlisted for major award

Posted on 9 September 2015

Research involving a University of York archaeological chemist, which has rewritten the history of Egyptian mummification, is shortlisted in the International Collaboration of the Year category in the 2015 Times Higher Education awards.

Bolton Museum, Mostagedda 33.30.57. Late Neolithic. Flax yarn from wrappings, heavily impregnated with resin. © Ron Oldfield and Jana JonesBolton Museum, Mostagedda 33.30.57. Late Neolithic. Flax yarn from wrappings, heavily impregnated with resin. © Ron Oldfield and Jana Jones

Dr Stephen Buckley working with colleagues at Macquarie University in Australia and Oxford discovered new evidence suggesting that the origins of mummification started in ancient Egypt 1,500 years earlier than previously thought.

Dr Buckley a Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology at York, and York’s BioArCh facility, worked with Egyptologist Dr Jana Jones, from the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, to push back the origins of a central and vital facet of ancient Egyptian culture by over a millennium.

Traditional theories on ancient Egyptian mummification suggest that in prehistory -- the Late Neolithic and Predynastic periods between c. 4500 and 3100 B.C. -- bodies were desiccated naturally through the action of the hot, dry desert sand. 

But the York, Macquarie and Oxford team identified the presence of complex embalming agents in linen wrappings from bodies in securely provenanced tombs in one of the earliest recorded ancient Egyptian cemeteries at Mostagedda, in the region of Upper Egypt.

Dr Buckley used a combination of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption/pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to identify a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, a natural petroleum source, and a plant oil/animal fat in the funerary wrappings.

Predating the earliest scientific evidence by more than a millennium, these embalming agents constitute complex, processed recipes of the same natural products, in similar proportions, as those employed at the zenith of Pharaonic mummification some 3,000 years later.

Dr Buckley said: “I am extremely pleased to be shortlisted for this award in such a highly competitive category. I have to thank Jana Jones for inviting me to join this compelling project.”

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