He lies curled up in the fetal position, remnants of reeds clinging to his legs. His right hand—severed at the wrist—lies beside him, wrapped in a thick layer of linen fabric. His left hand, still attached, is skeletonized.
To the average person, this sounds like it’s straight out of a horror movie. But for “Fred”—a prehistoric Egyptian mummy more often called S. 293—this equates to being in “pretty good shape.”
Thanks to a recent interdisciplinary study, S. 293 is the name on everyone’s lips–or at least on the lips of people interested in Egyptian archaeology! After several years and a slew of complex chemical tests, scientists revealed that S. 293 died between 3,700 and 3,500 B.C., and was purposefully preserved, making him the oldest known embalmed mummy.
“Egyptian mummification is such an iconic part of ancient Egyptian culture,” said Dr. Stephen Buckley, the lead archaeological chemist for the study. “If we think of mummies, we think of ancient Egypt. And this research pushed the origins of Egyptian mummification back 1,700 years, way back before what we previously considered to be the start of this iconic process.”
Prior to this, researchers thought that Egyptian embalming started in “the pyramid age,” sometime around 2,500 BC. Older, well-preserved bodies had been found, but archeologists thought that humans hadn’t had much to do with the preservation process. “The assumption was that the bodies being preserved in prehistoric ancient Egypt had been preserved naturally, just because of the hot dry sun, with no other help,” said Buckley. But the field shifted in the mid-late 1990s when archaeologists began excavating older prehistoric mummies.
“Several people noticed something that looked a bit like resin—similar to embalming materials that were used much later in ancient Egyptian history,” explained Buckley. “So, the question was, ‘Is this telling us something about the burial practices from this time? Was this visual evidence telling us that they may have started doing artificial mummification earlier than we thought?’.”
Dr. Jana Jones, lead Egyptologist for the study, was one of the people to notice this toffee-like, resinous material on prehistoric textiles dated to around 4,000 B.C. Jones recruited the help of Buckley in 2014, who determined that the substance on the linens was similar in composition to the embalming materials used in Pharaonic times. More specifically, both balms consisted of a plant oil, an aromatic plant extract, a plant-based sugar, and pine resin.
While this work on burial shrouds suggested embalming originated about 1,500 years earlier than previously thought, it didn’t fully satisfy researchers in the field.
“Egyptologists can be very literal, so the fact that there wasn’t an intact, prehistoric mummy that demonstrated this recipe was a concern,” Buckley explained. “We needed to investigate an Egyptian prehistoric mummy to see whether the mummy also showed those formative embalming recipes that we identified in 2014.”
Enter Fred, a rare mummy. Bought by an archaeological museum in Turin, Italy in the 1900s, he has been relatively unstudied by modern methods. “As far as we knew he hadn’t been conserved. There aren’t many [unconserved] mummies in the world, so we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time.” said Buckley.
Studying the mummy was challenging. The roughly 5,600-year-old Fred is extremely fragile, and museums are understandably reluctant to authorize sampling from human remains.
“Because of the nature of the work, some of the sample sizes are extremely small,” said Buckley. “I have on occasion had samples that end up being three microliters in total, and I inject only one to two microliters of that into an instrument.” For scale, one microliter of liquid is roughly the size of a grain of table salt. “But it’s surprising what you can get from very small samples. You can still get some very nice science that’s telling a very interesting story.”
And Fred’s samples told quite the story. Buckley used a technique called gas chromatography to separate the components of the resinous mixture into their individual, carbon-based compounds. He then used a mass spectrometer to fragment these compounds into chemical puzzle pieces.
“This technique is quite suited to identifying the individual components [of the embalming mixture],” said Buckley. “From there we can recreate the jigsaw from the pieces of the puzzle.”
The completed puzzle depicted exactly what Buckley and Jones had hoped: the resin embalming their prehistoric friend consisted of a plant oil, an aromatic plant extract, a plant-based sugar, and pine resin.
Sound familiar? It should—this is the same recipe used on both the burial shrouds from 4,000 B.C. and on more modern, pyramid-age mummies.
The presence of pine resin was particularly exciting to Buckley because it indicated that Egyptians in the Late Stone Age participated in long-distance trade. “The closest source for the pine resin was what is now South Eastern Turkey,” said Buckley.
Buckley added that ancient Egyptians used many plants symbolically and likely included the pine resin in their funerary procedures for this reason. After observing that the embalmed regions—typically the head and hands—were better preserved than the rest of the body, Buckley posited that the resin took on the dual role of symbolic and scientific importance. “It’s reasonable why humans would think ‘Perhaps there’s something we can take from this that will have benefits’.”
The fact that these embalming recipes remained the same from prehistoric times through the pyramid age more than 1,500 years later is remarkable. “It is the continuity that we see through the chemistry that is so significant,” said Buckley. “It suggests at least the beginnings of a common identity in Egypt.”
After completing his work on Fred, I asked Buckley what he sees in his future. His answer? The past!
“I think for me, I hope to go further back in time to see whether the origins of embalming begin before 4,300 BC,” he said.
With Dr. Stephen Buckley on the case, I have no doubt that we’ll soon know more about Fred’s distant ancestors.
By Gretchen Wettstein