London, Oct. 22 (Reuters): A German research team has unravelled the mystery of how the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead, using sophisticated science to track the preservative to an extract of the cedar tree.
Chemists from Tuebingen University and the Munich-based Doerner-Institut replicated an ancient treatment of cedar wood and found it contained a preservative chemical called guaiacol.
“Modern science has finally found the secret of why some mummies can last for thousands of years,” Ulrich Weser of Tuebingen University said today.
The team then tested the chemicals found in the cedar derivative on fresh pig ribs. They found it had an extremely high anti-bacterial effect without damaging body tissue.
The findings, published in the science journal Nature, will surprise Egyptologists who had thought the embalming oil was extracted from juniper rather than cedar.
The team also tested juniper extracts but found they did not contain the guaiacol preservatives.
Weser said that, despite ancient mentions of “cedar-juice”, scholars believed juniper to be the source because of similar Greek names and some mummies being found clutching juniper berries.
Grave robberies forced the ancient Egyptians, who mummified their dead in the hope they would live eternally, to bury deceased leaders deeper. Decomposition was much quicker, meaning they had to find a preservative as well as salting the bodies.
The team extracted the cedar oil using a method mentioned in a work by Pliny the Elder, a Roman encyclopaedist who wrote of an embalming ointment called “cedrium”.
Although there are no contemporary descriptions of how the tar was made, modern Egyptologists had overlooked Pliny’s account as he was writing centuries later.
The team found their cedar wood tar did contain the key preservative guaiacol. “We could demonstrate the accuracy of Pliny’s writings with 21st century science,” Weser said.