Examination of Egyptian mummies has shown that animals such as cats and crocodiles were given a far more careful and expensive trip to the afterlife than previously thought.
The mummification process, which was crucial to the ancient Egyptians so their bodies survived and they could become immortal, is being investigated by Dr Stephen Buckley at the University of York. He was speaking on September 11, 2007 at the BA Festival of Science.
His work uses modern chemistry techniques to look at exactly what was used to mummify humans and animals.
The technique involves taking a very small sample of the mummy and examining it for traces of chemicals using equipment commonly used in forensic studies.
The compounds that Dr Buckley finds act as the chemical fingerprints for the materials used by the Egyptian embalmers. These included animal fats, beeswax, plant oils and resins, and more exotic materials such as marjoram and cinnamon.
Following examination of over 100 samples it is clear that different animals were treated with different mummification materials. These "recipes" varied considerably, but it is believed that there is a symbolic association between the ingredients used for each animal and the god they represented.
"Mummification of animals has been thought of as cheap and cheerful, but this shows that a significant amount of effort, knowledge and expense was afforded to them," explained Dr Buckley.
"Cats in particular received special attention and this fits with the idea of cats having a special place in Egyptian life."
Cats were associated with the Egyptian goddess Bastet, who was particularly revered. To mummify a cat for its journey to the afterlife, the typical recipe would have been 80 per cent fat or oil, 10 per cent pistacia resin, 10 per cent conifer resin and a pinch of cinnamon.
"The Egyptian embalmers understood that there were things that caused the body to decay and they discovered that certain materials could help preserve the bodies. The resins they used on the inside of the bodies had anti-bacterial properties whilst those used on the outside acted as a barrier to moisture and fungus," said Dr Buckley.
This knowledge of the embalmers lives today on as some of those compounds used to preserve mummies are used in modern anti-bacterial products.
Dr Buckley's findings also shed light on the politics, religion and trade-routes of the Egyptians.
The black colouring of the mummy of the Priest of Min at Hull Museum is due to bitumen that was imported from Persia. This material was both practical and symbolic. Min was the Egyptian fertility god and the Egyptians used black silt to fertilise their fields so the mummy's colour represents the land and the god.
Materials provided by British Association For The Advancement Of Science. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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