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How Did Patterns Help Reveal an Older Origin of Mummies?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Coffin and Mummy of Nesmin (Around 250 BC). Photo by Daniel Decristo. Click on image for license and information.

I want to talk about patterns. We take them for granted but they shape our lives. That morning coffee you need to start your day has more meaning than you think. We build our sense of self on repetition, and we draw upon continuity to shape our society. Patterns can provide valuable clues about our histories, particularly those aspects of our stories that have moved beyond recent memory.

A study published in PLOS ONE peels back the layers on mummification to uncover patterns in the process. New information on embalming agents suggest mummification may have started in Egypt almost 1500 years earlier than previously believed. This is significant because it helps establish a hallmark of ancient Egyptian culture, and provides insights into the relationships and understanding these people may have held with their environments.

Egypt is one of the few places in the world where you can find mummies that are either anthropogenic or spontaneous. In the first instance, they’re the product of human intervention and the bodies undergo a deliberate process for preservation. In the latter, the bodies are exposed to the right environmental conditions—extreme heat or cold, or the anaerobic state of bogs—that slows and inhibits decay. It was assumed that ancient Egyptians progressed from “simpler” spontaneous processes to more complex anthropogenic ones. Prior to this study, very little work had been done on funerary remains from the Egyptian prehistoric period (4500 -3350 BC), and scientists believed that mummification originated in the Old Kingdom period (c. 2500 BC). This research potentially pushes the establishment of mummification processes back to 4500 BC.

How’d they get there? Patterns.

Let’s take two steps back and watch the story unfold.

The word “mummy” trickles down from the Persian word for wax or resin. It refers to the bitumen which was used to seal the bodies in their wrappings. This tar-like substance often permeated the wrappings leaving traces of itself behind and giving mummies their distinctive dark coloring. This has been most noticeable in the remains of Middle Kingdom (2000 – 1600 BC) mummies, and is expected because this was believed to be the height of the mummification process. The consistent use of bitumen as an embalming agent suggested scientists should look closer when they noticed similar traces of resin on the wrappings of bodies recovered from an older graveyard. Artifacts found in situ, including pottery and stone palettes, as well as trends in the weaving technology used in the wrappings, reliably placed these bodies within the predynastic period—well before the time when such practices had been believed to be established.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m talking about wrappings, but I said earlier that mummies in the earlier periods were believed to be the result of more spontaneous processes. If that’s the case, then wrappings should have been a trigger that ancient Egyptians more were hands-on earlier in the process than presumed. I’d tend to agree except the prevailing idea was that mummification technologies were more of a progression. The wrappings, in-and-of themselves, weren’t unusual in this context. They could have been seen as early attempts leading to the more anthropogenic approach.

However, the concentration of resin was unique. It’s placement on the back of the head, the jaw, and the hands echoed patterns seen in later instances of mummification. Chemical analysis of these wrappings later revealed the same types and relative proportions of substances that were used in the embalming process in later periods. This suggests that early mummification processes were less spontaneous than believed, but also that ancient Egyptians were interacting with their environment in fairly consistent ways for a substantial duration of time.

The processing of conifer resin to produce pitch or tar possessing antibacterial properties represents a body of knowledge that was transferred through generations to establish a cultural practice. What emerges is a picture of consistency: even when the sources for ingredients in the embalming agents differ, the nature of the ingredient remains the same, as is the case for wax, which is also a recurring element in mummification.

Identifying the pattern was the first step that allowed scientists to track back and extend the provenance of a people who have moved beyond the relatively recent past. However, recognizing the pattern is actually how we got there, and it reminds us that we need to be willing to put aside presumptions and question similarities when they arise.

Referenced:
Jones J, Higham TFG, Oldfield R, O’Connor TP, Buckley SA (2014) Evidence for Prehistoric Origins of Egyptian Mummification in Late Neolithic Burials. PLoS ONE 9(8): e103608. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103608

You may also like:
What can teeth tell us about our prehistoric ancestors?
The Missing Link that Wasn’t
What can social behavior in lemurs tell us about ourselves?
Bioluminescence in Nature

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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