Egyptian Mummification

illustrated landscape including a building, sphinx, and pyramids


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Most of these materials were mentioned by the ancient authors Herodotus, Diodorus, or Pliny as being used in the mummification process. For each, there is a comment on modern scientific evidence to support or refute these claims. Items not mentioned by the ancient authors but found in relation to mummies studied in modern times are listed as well.

There is no evidence of its deliberate use.
This substance was often used to cover the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and embalming incision. It is sometimes found on other parts of the body. Beeswax figures of the four sons of Horus accompanied the canopic packages of Dynasty 21 mummies.
The only human mummies on which bitumen was used were from the Graeco-Roman period in Egypt, and the material was not universally used even then. It may have been used on some animal mummies.
Cassia and Cinnamon
These substances are similar; both are from varieties of laurel that grow in India, Ceylon, and China. In ancient times cassia and cinnamon consisted of the bark plus flower-tops, twigs, and wood of these plants. Assuming that cassia and cinnamon were known during the times of the pharaohs, they would naturally have been used as flavoring and perfuming materials and also possibly as incense. Herodotus mentions cassia and Diodorus mentions cinnamon (possibly the same material being meant in both cases) as having been used in mummification. Two scholarly references have been made to cassia or cinnamon in relation to mummies. Neither is considered satisfactory or final.
Cedar Oil, Cedri Succus, Cedrium
The cedar oil spoken of by Herodotus and Diodorus is probably actually made from the juniper plant. One author says it was injected and the other that it was used for anointing. For each function, differing juniper products would be necessary: theinjection fluid was probably oil of turpentine containing wood tar; the anointing fluid was probably ordinary oil perfumed by volatile oil of juniper. Modern-day cedar oil is made through a distillation process unknown until a late date. The cedri succus mentioned by Pliny was the natural resin of some coniferous tree, probably never cedar, but often the juniper. There is ample evidence that this was used for embalming by the ancient Egyptians. Cedrium, as defined by Pliny was pyroligneous acid containing mixed oil of turpentine and wood tar, for the use of which no Egyptian evidence has been found. The term cedrium, however, might not unreasonably have been used to mean wood tar alone, which was sometimes employed by the Egyptians for embalming.
The flowers were probably used in ancient Egypt for perfuming ointments and the leaves were used as a cosmetic to color the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, and the hair. It was thought that it was used to paint these parts of mummies as well as the finger and toe nails, but this discoloration may actually have been from the embalming process.
Two jars in Tutankhamun's tomb were labeled as containing honey, but none was found in the jars.
Juniper berries
These berries are found both placed on the body and placed in the tombs. They seem to be directly connected with the cedar wood used for coffins and shrines and the cedar oil used on the bodies. (See the cedar oil entry above). Juniper does not grow in Egypt, although it is found in other places in the Mediterranean. It may have grown in Egypt during an earlier period, but importation is more likely.
In some Dynasty 21-23 mummies, the abdomen was packed with dried lichen.
Natron, a naturally-occurring salt, has been found in cases and jars in tombs, in packages in tombs, in pits with refuse embalming materials, encrusted in wooden embalming tables, and on certain mummies. It was regarded as a great purifying agent, probably because it cleansed by chemically destroying fat and grease. Natron was used in all purification ceremonies and was also mixed with incense for purification.
Mummificiation may have included anointing the body with fragrant gum-resins (frankincense and myrrh) and various oils and fats (cedar oil, ox fat and ointments) as a religious ceremony between the end of embalming and the beginning of wrapping. This process is mentioned in several Egyptian papyri. After wrapping, there was apparently another ceremony that consisted of pouring a liquid or semi-liquid resinous material over the mummy and sometimes also over the coffin and over the viscera after they had been put into the canopic box.
These have been found in the bandages and coffins from Dynasty 22, and even as early as Dynasty 13. Onion skins were sometimes placed over the eyes of the dead. Onions have also been placed in the pelvis, in the thorax, and in the external ears.
Black, blue, brown, grey, green, orange, pink, red, white, and yellow were the colors used in ancient Egyptian painting. The paints could be applied to stone, cartonnage, wood, or papyrus rolls. The type of paint they used is called tempera. Tempera paints are made by mixing the source of the color, called the pigment, with water and an adhesive (a sticky substance that helps the paint stick to the surface to which it is being applied). The pigments used in Egyptian paints came from natural materials such as powdered minerals (copper, for example), chalk, and soot. For true tempera paints egg yolks are used as the adhesive, though some scientists believe that egg whites and glue were also used by the ancient Egyptians. Glue was created by boiling animal bones, skins, cartilage, and tendons until the gelatin was released. [Note: gelatin is what makes Jell-O harden.] The gelatin glue was then put in molds and allowed to harden until ready for use.
Palm Wine
Both Herodotus and Diodorus state it was used for cleaning the body cavities and viscera during the embalming process. It is not a substance that remains on the body for a long period of time, so modern scientists have no current physical evidence of its use.
It was put in graves even before mummification, probably for incense. In the tombs of mummies, it was also found in conjunction with natron. In Tutankhamen's tomb, personal ornaments and other objects were made of resin. Resin was also used as a varnish and as a cementing material.
True Resins
True resins were obtained from the eastern Mediterranean. The trees that may have been used were (Lebanon) cedar (though it does not produce resins in great amounts), (Cilician) fir, and (Aleppo) pine.
Gum Resins
The gum-resins are probably myrrh.
It has been fonud in mummy body cavities, canopic jars, other tomb packages, and refuse embalming material.
Herodotus and Diodorus mention spices in general, but they do not list specific ones other than cassia and cinnamon.
Wood Pitch and Wood Tar
Wood pitch would have been used in late mummies. Sometimes it is found inside the skull. Wood tar has been found in an ibis mummy and a funerary vase. These were probably imported, because they are fragrant and the wood pitch and tar produced in Egypt would not have been from fragrant, coniferous trees.