At Last, the Secret to Making Mummies Revealed

Called simply, 'Fred,' the mummy at the Turin Museum has been untouched by modern chemicals. Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

How do you make a mummy?

For ages, it seemed, we could only wonder at the finished product — the astoundingly well-preserved bodies of both humans and animals dating back from the great age of mummy-making: Ancient Egypt, circa 2600 B.C.

But one mummy defied long-standing belief — the embalmed remains of a young man who died in Upper Egypt around 3,700 B.C. That's more than a millennia earlier than the date previously pegged for mummy-making.

What's more, that mystery mummy not only points to a tradition that goes back much further than we thought; it may have also finally passed on the "recipe" for embalmings that Egyptians would use for thousands of years..

In a new study published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science, scientists reverse-mummineered the linen-wrapped remains of the first man known to undergo the process.

"Very little was known about the mummy previously, and this was the first interdisciplinary scientific study to investigate him," study co-author Stephen Buckley of the University of York told Ars Technica.

More importantly, the mummy, residing at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, had never undergone modern efforts to preserve it. That gave scientists a unique opportunity to study its original chemistry without modern contaminants.

"Until now," Buckley told BBC News, "We've not had a prehistoric mummy that has actually demonstrated, so perfectly through the chemistry, the origins of what would become the iconic mummification that we know all about."

Easy to make, but where did the ingredients come from?

A close-up of a mummy on a table
In all, it took around 70 days for Egyptians to make the perfect mummy. Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

Archaeologists were able to come up with a basic list of mummy-making ingredients: plant oil (maybe sesame), pinch of root extract (maybe from bulrushes), eye of newt — err, a plant-based gum, and tree resin.

Of course, as any chef will tell you, especially one who works with preserves, having all the ingredients doesn't mean you actually make something with them.

Fortunately, we already have a good idea of how mummies are prepared. The brain, for example, is removed and whisked into a consistent liquid. At the same time, the body is salted to dry it out thoroughly. The remaining organs are plucked out. And the body is coated with the embalming solution, which protects it against bacteria.

Wait 70 days, wrap that body in linen, and voila!

Okay, so a recipe for making mummies may not be of much practical value. Mummified eggs will probably never be a thing. Besides, some of those ingredients aren't exactly flying off the shelves at the local Safeway.

But that's also why scientists see the new research as so important. Those ingredients had to be imported from far-flung places — the nearest source of pine resin, for example, would have been the region known today as Israel and Palestine.

It suggests, Buckley points out, a pan-Egyptian identity with sophisticated trade routes spanning distant lands, one that thrived before the region came together under one rule..

It also tells us that the fascination with priming bodies for the afterlife was shared more widely and by more people than the pharaohs were letting on.