Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Cinnamon/Cassia residues found on Ancient Egyptian remains

Dr. Stephen Buckley of the University of York found traces
of what was probably cinnamon or cassia from Southeast Asia in the
residue of an Egyptian canopic jar.

This "Cinnamon Route" from Southeast Asia to Rhapta in southeastern Africa and then eventually to Egypt has been discussed on this blog previously.

Canopic jar residue

For the past 36 years, an Egyptian jar has stood in the collection
of a Harrogate museum and, for countless years before that, lay in the
deserts of the Middle East. But tests have proved that the residue
inside is not just the grime of centuries, but is all that is left of
a long-dead priest.

Experts at York University, led by Dr Stephen Buckley, have
established the residue is cholesterol from human remains. . .

The testing also confirmed the Egyptians had sterilised the body
and entrails using alcohol as an antiseptic.

And for the first time, science has been able to show that the
alcohol used was date palm wine, confirming descriptions given by
classical authors such as the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.

It was also revealed that the organs stored inside the jar had
been treated with an aromatic spice, probably scented cinnamon or
cassia imported from South-East Asia.

Next a more recent study by Dr. Buckley reveals that cinnamon was used
to mummify cats:

Science Daily — 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

"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

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.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by
British Association For The Advancement Of Science.

Paul Kekai Manansala