Mud mummy 1

Mud shroud

Advanced scientific techniques have revealed a rare painted shell, or carapace, of mud within the wrappings of an Egyptian mummified body, throwing existing knowledge about mummies into question. 

It’s the first time this type of ancient body preservation from the dynasty has been discovered, according to Karin Sowada from Sydney’s Macquarie University, who led the analysis with colleagues from Australia and Cambridge University in the UK.

“This is a genuinely new discovery in Egyptian mummification,” she says. “This study assists in constructing a bigger – and more nuanced – picture of how the ancient Egyptians treated and prepared their dead.”

Originally, analyses had found that a resinous paste was used to cover the skin and linen bandages, after the body and internal organs were treated and organs stored in jars or wrapped and placed back inside the body along with special amulets for protection.

By all accounts, this sophisticated and costly mummification process was used for royalty and wealthy people to fulfil religious beliefs – that only preserved bodies could enter the afterlife and be reborn. Others preserved their loved ones’ bodies using less costly means.

Sowada and colleagues used CT scans (computed tomography) to examine a mummified adult stored at the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney, publishing their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.

In 1860, Sir Charles Nicholson had donated the body to the museum after buying it during a trip to Egypt a few years earlier. The carapace was first discovered in 1999 as part of a CT scanning program on the museum’s collection.

It was rescanned in 2017, along with the skeletal remains, using more advanced techniques that showed greater detail. 

The team used radiocarbon dating on the textile samples and micro X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy analyses to identify the linen material and mineral composition of the painted mud shell, which was sandwiched with straw between the layers of linen.

Axial CT images of mummified individual showing transverse views of the carapace at different locations. The carapace is a thin white line under the wrappings (arrowed). Credit: PLOS ONE / courtesy Chau Chak Wing Museum and Macquarie Medical Imaging

The wrappings date back to around 1200 years BCE, and the mummification techniques placed the body in the late 19th to 20th Dynasty. Analyses also revealed that the individual was about 150–200 years older than the coffin, which had decorations dating it to around 1000 BCE.

Sowada suggests later dealers likely put an unrelated body in the coffin to sell it as a complete package.

Skeletal remains showed evidence that the body had been disrupted post-mortem and subsequently patched up. “Some of the bones had separated from each other, damage probably caused by ancient tomb-robbers,” says Sowada. “The family likely organised a mud carapace as a form of ancient conservation to assist her transition to the hereafter.”

It’s also possible, the authors suggest, that the mud carapace was used to emulate elite practices to replace the expensive resin imported from the Mediterranean coast with more readily available mud from the nearby Nile River.

Identifying her as a “probable female”, the team says previous DNA analyses portraying the body as male might have been contaminated and should be re-evaluated – just one of many new avenues of exploration.

“The results remind us that many new discoveries are potentially right under our noses in museum collections,” says Sowada. “Much remains to be learned about the past with the application of new scientific techniques to material acquired long ago, without having to go into the field.”