Rare discovery of ancient Egyptian ‘mud mummy’

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The reanalysis of an ancient Egyptian mummy carried out using modern techniques finds that the remains are enveloped in a “shell of mud”, and not in resin as is usually the case.

In ancient Egypt, people believed in immortality. Also, the preservation of the body was a very important symbol. We then proceeded to mummification, a funeral ritual performed by professionals, with the aim of “purifying and making the body divine so that it becomes an Osiris”. In the true sense of the word, mummification consisted of preserving a corpse by covering it with balsamic materials and linen strips, then placing the body in a sarcophagus. However, what if you can’t get your hands on these expensive, imported materials? Just use mud!

Clay shell

At least that’s what a new study suggests, the results of which are published in the journal Plos One. As part of this work, archaeologists from Macquarie University (Australia) re-examined an ancient Egyptian mummy purchased by Sir Charles Nicholson, an Australian-English explorer and politician, during a trip to Egypt from 1856 to 1857. The remains had been the subject of a few scans in 1999 which revealed the presence of a “shell”. More recent CT scans and analysis of textiles have finally revealed that this mummy is actually sheathed in a clay envelope.

Mummified bodies in collections around the world have sat under our noses for generations. The application of new technologies can reveal completely new information that challenges what we previously knew“, Underlines in a press release Dr. Karin Sowada, main author of the study. According to the archaeologist, it would be a cheaper alternative to the costly resin shells enveloping the high social personality bodies of this period.

The mummy and her coffin. Credits: Sowada et al, 2021, PLOS ONE.

Not the right sarcophagus?

The coffin inscription also identifies this mummy as a woman named Meruah. However, researchers strongly suspect that it is actually another person inside. Indeed, the inscription contains an iconography dating from around 1000 BCE. However, a new radiocarbon dating of textile samples finally revealed that the individual had been mummified at the end of the New Kingdom, c. 1200 to 1113 BCE. According to the authors, the body is that of a woman aged 26 to 35, but his identity remains a mystery.

The radiocarbon dates tell us that the body and its coffin are unrelated, so we don’t know its name or status.», Confirms Karin Sowada.

Mummies from the end of the New Kingdom to the 21st dynasty of Egypt (1294 to 945 BCE) have sometimes been found enveloped in this type of “shell”. However, as noted in the study, these mummies had so far never been documented in the scientific literature, making it the first study of this unusual mortuary practice.

However, due to the more affordable nature of mud, the authors suspect that “mud shells” might be more common than you think. “We suggest that some shells identified as “resin” enveloping mummified individuals kept in museums have maybe misidentified“, Emphasizes Dr Sowada. “Also, previous results of other studies will need to be re-examined in light of our results.“.

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