© Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany. Photographer: M. Abedlghaffar
Vessels from the embalming workshop © Saqqara Saite Tombs Project, University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany. Photographer: M. Abedlghaffar

Ancient Egypt’s Chemists

Feb. 2, 2023

Call it a morbid curiosity, but I’m always fascinated when I see an article about about well-preserved ancient remains. In fact, the other day I sent a friend a picture from a New York Times article about “ancient bog bodies” mummified in the wetlands of northern Europe.

Coincidentally, while searching for chemical-industry related news today, I stumbled upon this Popular Science article about how the Ancient Egyptians used chemicals in their mummification process. According to the article:

A new study published today in the journal Nature provides an answer for how they mastered this complex process. By studying the residues left on a set of embalming pots, a team of archaeologists identified chemical mixtures used to preserve the dead.

Master Chemists

The article described how the Ancient embalmers needed to be “masters of chemistry” to remove vital organs without causing physical damage and to prevent decomposition.

The authors of the study looked at the contents of ceramic vessels from an embalming workshop in Saqqara, Egypt. It turns out the Ancient Egyptians had their own little chemical processing work site.

A team of archeologists found 121 beakers and bowls that included embalming instructions, according to the Popular Science article. Residues from nine beakers and 22 bowls revealed a wide range of natural substances, such as plant oils, natural petroleum and resins, as well as blends of chemicals, including a fatty acid used in soap called ricinoleic acid mixed with oleic acid and possibly castor oil.

International Traders

Turns out the Ancient Egyptians also were masters of the raw materials supply chain. According to the article:

The researchers also found that most of the embalming ingredients were imported from other lands, suggesting Egyptians were heavily involved in the international economy. They likely traded for bitumen in communities surrounding the Dead Sea. Others seemed to have made the long trek to the Mediterranean, tropical Africa, and southeast Asian woods to find resin and elemi.

Another article on the findings from Science describes how the Ancient Egyptians perfected their knowledge of chemistry over 2,000 years.

 “The chemical knowledge they must have had in this workshop was amazing,” said Philipp Stockhammer, an archaeologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Stockhammer also noted that most of the things the embalmers needed came from outside Egypt, saying that “mummification drove globalization.”

While reading, I was trying to draw some parallels to today’s industry and the innovation we’re seeing currently in chemical processing operations. Whether it’s plastics recycling or the use of bio-derived renewable feedstocks, the industry continues to search for new materials and partner, as this recent initiative in the UK demonstrates, to solve the industry’s most challenging problems.

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Executive Editor

Jonathan Katz, executive editor, brings nearly two decades of experience as a B2B journalist to Chemical Processing magazine. He has expertise on a wide range of industrial topics. Jon previously served as the managing editor for IndustryWeek magazine and, most recently, as a freelance writer specializing in content marketing for the manufacturing sector.

His knowledge areas include industrial safety, environmental compliance/sustainability, lean manufacturing/continuous improvement, Industry 4.0/automation and many other topics of interest to the Chemical Processing audience.

When he’s not working, Jon enjoys fishing, hiking and music, including a small but growing vinyl collection.

Jon resides in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.

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