Ancient embalmers used mud to hold a damaged mummy together
February 4, 2021
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Color photo of painted coffin (top) and linen-wrapped mummy (bottom).
Enlarge / Sir Charles Nicholson donated the mummified person and the coffin to the University of Sydney in 1860, apparently having realized that an entire dead body is a pretty horrific travel souvenir.

Sowada et al, PLOS ONE (CC BY 4.0

Approximately 3,200 years ago in Egypt, ancient embalmers encased a mummy in dried mud to repair the damage done by careless tomb robbers. Archaeologists recently used a CT scanner to unravel part of the dead person’s story. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, revealed an unknown mummification technique, along with a strange tale of grave robbing, family devotion, and mistaken identity.

The person, now known only as NMR.27.3, died relatively young. The name of the deceased is lost to history, and their gender is debatable (more on that later). After death, grave robbers broke into their tomb at least twice, and now archaeologists have pieced together some fragments of the story—mostly the postmortem chapters.

What is left behind is a rare glimpse of life and death in ancient Egypt. The anonymous mummified person reveals that even years after death, living relatives still cared enough about the deceased to actually have the corpse repaired (sort of) after grave robbers damaged it. And to repair the mummy, ancient embalmers plastered mud over the linen wrappings to help the body hold its shape, a technique that modern archaeologists have never seen before.

In the CT scan, Macquarie University archaeologists Karin Sowada and her colleagues could see that several bones, including the left knee and the bones of the lower leg, had been broken after the person died; bone breaks differently after death, when it’s dry and brittle, than during life. Although the bones were broken, and some were even disarticulated, the linen wrappings directly over the fractures were neat and undisturbed, and the thin layer of dried mud wasn’t cracked. That suggests the embalmers re-wrapped the mummy after the damage was done.

An eventful afterlife

For ancient Egyptians, the whole point of mummification was to preserve the corpse for all eternity as a vessel for the person’s soul (at least one part of the soul, if we’re being technical), without which the deceased couldn’t survive in the afterlife. No pressure or anything.

Pharaohs Seti I (1323-1279 BCE) and Amenhotep III (1411-1353 BCE) both underwent re-packing and re-wrapping long after they died—more than once for Seti I. But pharaohs tended to have elaborate mortuary temples with priests keeping a close eye on their tombs for centuries.

For everyone who wasn’t the earthly incarnation of a god, living family members probably only checked on the tomb and made offerings for a couple of generations at most. But apparently, “They, or others associated with the deceased, had enough concern for the latter’s posthumous wellbeing to later invest in a mud-plastered and painted carapace after the body had been disturbed and dismembered,” wrote Sowada and her colleagues.

We don’t know this person’s name, but the remains offer silent proof of how seriously their family took their beliefs about the afterlife and duty to one’s ancestors. The postmortem misadventures of the remains also remind us that grave robbing was an ancient profession.

How to repair a broken mummy

To repair the damage done during the robbery, the embalmers re-wound the linen wrappings, and then they plastered a thin layer of mud over the cloth to create a protective shell around the damaged mummy. When it dried, the mud helped hold the broken limbs in place and preserve the shape of an intact body. Add a few more layers of linen over the mud shell, and hey, presto, the deceased is as good as new and ready to carry on with the afterlife.

Archaeologists had never seen this technique before, which is what caught Sowada’s attention when she first noticed the thin layer of mud during a CT scanning session back in 1999. Twenty years later, improvements in CT scanning technology allowed Sowada and her colleagues to get a more detailed look. The resolution of the recent scan allowed the archaeologists to distinguish between individual layers of linen, and between linen and the painted mud shell. The results confirmed that they were looking at a mummification trick no one had seen in thousands of years.

The basic mechanics of mummification didn’t change much over the millennia: remove the gooey parts, dry out the body, apply preservative chemicals, and wrap the body in linen to help preserve it. But like any technology and/or cultural practice, the details evolved over time, and they also varied depending on where you lived and how rich and important you were.

Around the 21st Dynasty (1294 to 945 BCE), some royal mummies included a layer of linen soaked in resin, which dried into a hard shell. Seti I and his son Rameses II both received this treatment. Sowada and her colleagues suggest that the painted layer of mud could have been an affluent-but-not-blue-blooded person’s attempt at copying high society. But if that’s the case, it’s hard to see why embalmers would save it for the repair attempt. Perhaps they remembered the resin technique and thought, “Something that dries into a hard shell would be perfect for this postmortem restoration, but what’s less astronomically expensive than resin?”

It’s also possible that encasing mummies in mud was standard practice during a window of time, at least for some social classes. Archaeologists don’t have enough information to know yet, but Sowada and her colleagues suspect that NMR.27.3 wasn’t the only mummified person to receive this treatment, just the first one archaeologists noticed.

“Understanding how common this practice had become in the late New Kingdom will require the radiological study and publication of further non-royal mummified individuals from this era,” wrote Sowada and her colleagues.

A stranger in the lady’s coffin

One thing is certain, however: NMR.27.3  definitely wasn’t a New Kingdom noblewoman named Meruah, who died around 1000 BCE. Her names and titles are painted on the lid of the wooden coffin, but the mummified body inside isn’t actually Meruah. Radiocarbon dating and the style of the scenes painted on the coffin suggest that she died somewhere between 945 and 1040 BCE. On the other hand, a radiocarbon date of the mummy’s linen wrappings suggests that the person inside the coffin died sometime between 1207 and 1113 BCE. Meruah probably hadn’t even been born yet.

Archaeologists will probably never find Meruah’s body, but they’re pretty sure how a stranger ended up in her coffin: colonialism.

Sometime in the past, looters probably broke into Meruah’s tomb and stole her coffin. Later—much later—shady 19th century antiquities dealers decided they could charge more for the fancy coffin if it had a mummy inside, so they found one. And apparently they were right, because a wealthy British tourist named Sir Charles Nicholson bought Meruah’s coffin and its unknown occupant on a trip to Egypt in 1856.

Even basic questions are sometimes complicated

The person now occupying Meruah’s coffin may or may not have been female. Several years ago, DNA sequenced from the remains suggested that the person was genetically male, but Sowada and her colleagues say that in their CT scans, the person’s pelvis, skull, and lower jaw look more like the bones of a woman.

“We are assuming the differences in the results of the skeletal examination and the aDNA result stem from a problem with the aDNA study,” Sowada told Ars. “Without further investigation, we are assuming the issue relates to contamination somewhere in the process.”

The painted mud itself only adds to the uncertainty. Sowada and her colleagues examined fragments of the mud shell with X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy—both techniques that measure the chemical composition of a sample based on how its molecules reflect light or X-rays. It turns out to be a fine-grained brown clay, coated with a white calcite pigment and then painted red.

Although the mud covers the mummified person’s entire body, the samples Sowada and her colleagues examined came from near the head; a colleague of Sowada’s carefully removed three small fragments in 1999. Sowada and her colleagues don’t know yet whether the rest of the shell was also painted. “I am interested to know if the whole carapace was painted and even decorated; we will have to wait for further improvements in imaging technologies to answer this question,” Sowada told Ars.

From the 19th to the 21st dynasty—around the time NMR.27.3 died—Egyptian artists tended to paint men with reddish faces and women with yellow ones. That’s just the way things were done, and Egyptian art tended to be very conventional and stylized. Death masks and coffins followed tradition, with men’s faces being painted in reddish pigments like the one on NMR.27.3’s shell.

But in Thebes, near modern-day Luxor, archaeologists have found some examples of women depicted with darker reddish-brown skin. Since Meruah’s coffin is a Theban style, and Nicholson bought the coffin and the mummified person inside it near Luxor, the red pigment could also mark the deceased as a woman. After all, conventions change depending on when and where you are.

PLOS ONE, 2021 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0245247  (About DOIs).

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