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How to Make a Mummy? New Evidence on 5,600-yr-old Recipe Used for Embalming a Body

Nancy Bilyeau
Photo by Klafubra  CC BY-SA 3.0
Photo by Klafubra CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s best to follow a recipe when baking a lasagna or a chocolate souffle…but is one really necessary for proper mummification?

It turns out that in ancient Egypt, the answer was yes, and in fact such carefully followed steps for embalming took place much earlier than researchers realized.

A prehistoric mummy found near the banks of the Nile — nicknamed Fred — and for decades housed in a museum in Turin, Italy, holds the key to understanding the “recipe.” The mummy is dated to about 5,600 years ago, but the ingredients used to preserve it were also employed much later in Egyptian history.

The Turin Mummy, known as ‘Fred,’ Museo Egizio Torino. Photo by Pava CC BY-SA 3.0

The Turin Mummy, known as ‘Fred,’ Museo Egizio Torino. Photo by Pava CC BY-SA 3.0

The Turin body’s necessary ingredient list represents the earliest known embalming salve, and it predates the peak of mummification in the region by some 2,500 years.

Researchers used chemical analysis to determine the exact ingredients of the balm. The fact that the same ingredients were used so many years apart show that there was a system used and followed.

So what is the recipe? The ancients apparently mixed plant oil, heated resin from conifers, a plant gum or sugar, and an aromatic plant extract into a sticky paste that was then spread on the fabric wrappings. The antibacterial properties seeped through the textiles to prevent decay.

A perfectly preserved mummy exhibited at the Egyptian museum in Turin. Photo by Pava CC BY-SA 3.0

A perfectly preserved mummy exhibited at the Egyptian museum in Turin. Photo by Pava CC BY-SA 3.0

Study author and University of York archaeologist Stephen Buckley said to the BBC, “Until now, we’ve not had a prehistoric mummy that has actually demonstrated—so perfectly through the chemistry—the origins of what would become the iconic mummification that we know all about.”

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Apparently, as with its famous counterpart Gebelein Man in the British Museum, the Turin mummy was first assumed to have been naturally mummified by the hot, dry desert sand.

A mummy at the Egyptian Museum in Turin (a face and nipples have been drawn on the bandages). Human remains wrapped in linen cloths, Ancient Kingdom, V dynasty (about 2400 BC). Provenance: Gebelein, Schiaparelli excavations, 1911. Photo by Pava CC BY-SA 3.0

A mummy at the Egyptian Museum in Turin (a face and nipples have been drawn on the bandages). Human remains wrapped in linen cloths, Ancient Kingdom, V dynasty (about 2400 BC). Provenance: Gebelein, Schiaparelli excavations, 1911. Photo by Pava CC BY-SA 3.0

Using chemical analysis, the scientific team uncovered evidence that the mummy had in fact undergone an embalming process. It is the detailed study of that analysis that had led to the understanding of the recipe.

According to the University of York statement, “It is the first time that extensive tests have been carried out on an intact prehistoric mummy, consolidating the researchers’ previous findings that embalming was taking place 1,500 years earlier than previously accepted.”

Gebelein predynastic mummy. Photo by Fæ CC BY-SA 3.0

Gebelein predynastic mummy. Photo by Fæ CC BY-SA 3.0

“Dating from c.3700-3500 BC, the mummy has been housed in the Egyptian Museum in Turin since 1901, but unlike the majority of other prehistoric mummies in museums, it has never undergone any conservation treatments, providing a unique opportunity for accurate scientific analysis.”

The team includes researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie, Oxford, Warwick, Trento and Turin. They say this discovery highlights the fact that the mummy came from Upper (southern) Egypt, which offers the first indication that the embalming recipe was being used over a wider geographical area at a time when the concept of a pan-Egyptian identity was supposedly still developing.

Ancient Egyptian mummy in Turin (Museo Egizio). Photo by Pava CC BY-SA 3.0

Ancient Egyptian mummy in Turin (Museo Egizio). Photo by Pava CC BY-SA 3.0

National Geographic says, “With their commonly curled positions and organs still inside their shriveled bodies, prehistoric mummies are a far cry from the classic entombed mummies that come to mind when you think of Egypt. But the basic idea behind an embalming salve remained the same.”

It’s unclear how the embalming salve was figured out so long ago.

“Some of these ingredients may well have had a symbolic significance initially,” Buckley told National Geographic. “But then they noticed that they had a preservative benefit.” The team is now studying sites of early experimentation with embalming ingredients, says Buckley, hinting at a future publication.

The mummified Gebelein Man, formerly dubbed “Ginger,” in a reconstructed Egyptian grave-pit (photo taken in 2008). Photo by Jack1956 CC BY-SA 3.0

The mummified Gebelein Man, formerly dubbed “Ginger,” in a reconstructed Egyptian grave-pit (photo taken in 2008). Photo by Jack1956 CC BY-SA 3.0

As for Gebelein Man, which had been nicknamed Ginger due to his red hair and seen by millions of visitors to the British Museum, in 2012 researchers determined that he was almost certainly murdered by an assailant. Experts, who used digital images and scanning technology, figured that he was not only attacked with a vicious blow but it took him by surprise.

His injuries suggest he was the victim of a deliberate, violent killing during a period of peace, with his shoulder blade damaged and the rib underneath shattered in a manner consistent with a stab wound.

The cause of death of Fred in the Turin museum is unknown.


Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.