Yorkshire Ancient Egypt expert unwraps 6,000 year old mummy secret

Hollywood's iconic image of The Mummy played by Boris Karloff. Photo: Universal Pictures.
Hollywood's iconic image of The Mummy played by Boris Karloff. Photo: Universal Pictures.

ANCIENT Egyptians were embalming mummies 1,500 years earlier than previously known - around 6,000 years ago, a Yorkshire based expert revealed today.

It follows tests which for the first time prove the culture's famed burial process was used on a mummy dated c.3700-3500 BC.

The amazing discovery was made by a team including Archaeological chemist and mummification expert Dr Stephen Buckley, from the University of York’s BioArCh facility.

The mummy - housed in the Egyptian Museum in Turin since 1901 - was assumed to have been naturally mummified by the hot, dry desert conditions like its famous counterpart, Gebelein Man A, in the British Museum

But, unlike many other prehistoric mummies in museums, it had never undergone conservation treatments, providing a unique opportunity for accurate scientific analysis, said Dr Buckley.

What they discovered was it had in fact been embalmed using a plant oil, heated conifer resin, an aromatic plant extract and a plant gum/sugar mixed together and used to impregnate the funerary textiles in which the body was wrapped.

This ‘recipe’ contained antibacterial agents similar to those used by the Egyptian embalmers whose skills peaked 2,500 years later.

Using chemical analysis, the scientific team led by the Universities of York and Macquarie uncovered the evidence.

Dr Buckley, of Scarborough, who began his journey with a Chemistry degree at the University of Sheffield, said: “Having identified very similar embalming recipes in previous research on prehistoric burials, this latest study provides both the first evidence for the wider geographical use of these balms and the first ever unequivocal scientific evidence for the use of embalming on an intact, prehistoric Egyptian mummy.

“Moreover, this preservative treatment contained antibacterial constituents in the same proportions as those used in later ‘true’ mummification. As such, our findings represent the literal embodiment of the forerunners of classic mummification, which would become one of the central and iconic pillars of ancient Egyptian culture.”

He and and his partner, TV Egyptologist and University of York Prof Joann Fletcher, were part of a team of scientists who won a BAFTA for the 2011 Channel 4 documentary Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret, which involved mummifying taxi driver Alan Billis, to replicate rediscovered secrets of the complex ancient process, at Sheffield’s Medico-Legal Centre.

Dr Buckley is also carrying out forensic tests looking for mummy remains in 19th century paintings featuring Mummy Brown paint, including ground up remains of Egyptian mummies, both human and feline.

The new mummification study, A prehistoric Egyptian mummy: evidence for an 'embalming recipe' and the evolution of early formative funerary treatments, is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Archaeological chemist and mummification expert Dr Stephen Buckley,

Archaeological chemist and mummification expert Dr Stephen Buckley,

The Turin mummy dated c.3700-3500 BC. Photo: Egyptian Museum Turin

The Turin mummy dated c.3700-3500 BC. Photo: Egyptian Museum Turin

Mummifying Alan Egypts Last Secret team Professor Peter Vanezis, Dr Stephen Buckley, Prof Joann Fletcher and Maxine Coe. Photo: Channel 4

Mummifying Alan Egypts Last Secret team Professor Peter Vanezis, Dr Stephen Buckley, Prof Joann Fletcher and Maxine Coe. Photo: Channel 4