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Ancient Egyptians Prove Chemical Embalming Fluid Isn’t Necessary

Ancient Egyptians were known to be master embalmers, but how did they do it? New research reveals the natural ingredients in Egyptian embalming fluids.
See What Was in Ancient Egyptian Embalming Fluids
See What Was in Ancient Egyptian Embalming Fluids

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The Egyptians are known for being masters at mummification. But did you know they also embalmed their dead with special fluids? However, they didn’t do it in quite the same way as today’s embalmers. Their methods were actually much safer and just as effective. A recent study of ancient embalming fluids provides an interesting look at their use and proves the chemical-laden embalming fluids of today aren’t necessary. 

The Embalming Fluids of Ancient Egypt

We’ve known for some time that Egyptian morticians began using embalming fluids thousands of years ago. This is long before physicians in America developed modern embalming techniques. However, not much was known about their embalming fluids until recently.

A study in the journal Nature shared new details on exactly what was in the embalming fluids used by Egyptian morticians 3,500 years ago. A team of researchers analyzed 31 vessels from what was deemed to be an embalming workshop. They were first able to decipher labels on the vessels, which made it clear the substances inside were used to embalm the dead. The labels named the different substances, but the researchers still weren’t sure what the substances actually were. 

The researchers scraped the insides of the vessels to remove residue and then conducted gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis. After the chemical analysis, the researchers finally discovered what exactly was used in the ancient Egyptian embalming fluids, and there were some surprises.

In addition to discovering some unknown ingredients, the researchers also found that some previous assumptions based on translations were incorrect. One of the biggest surprises was that what the researchers thought was frankincense turned out to be a mixture of animal fats, cedar oil and juniper or cypress oil. 

Not only did it reveal what the ingredients actually were, it was also evidence that the ancient Egyptians were in contact with faraway cultures much earlier than expected. In fact, many of the embalming ingredients that were used by the Egyptians didn’t come from Egypt. In addition to the Mediterranean, embalming ingredients were sourced from other parts of Africa and as far away as southeast Asia. The need for these foreign ingredients helped to support trade among Egypt and many other nations that stretched from West Africa all the way to Indonesia. 

The ingredients that were used in ancient Egyptian embalming fluids were primarily fragrant resins, plant oils and animal fats. Other ingredients that are known to be in ancient Egyptian embalming fluids include: 

  • Castor oil
  • Pistachio resin
  • Bitumen
  • Elemi tree resin
  • Dammar gum
  • Beeswax

The embalming fluid mixtures are actually more complex than originally thought, and the ingredients spanned a wider range than first believed. And this analysis is just from one embalming site. It’s quite possible that in different regions or in different periods of time other ingredients were used to embalm in ancient Egypt. 

The research isn’t done yet so we’ll know even more about these natural embalming ingredients after more analysis. One reason for the continued research is because modern day physicians and morticians could learn from the ancient Egyptians. The hope is that the analysis of the embalming fluids could inform doctors on antifungal and antiviral properties in the ingredients in addition to using safer alternative substances for embalming fluids. 

How Today’s Embalming Fluids Compare

The list of components for ancient Egyptian embalming fluid is far different than what is used today in modern embalming fluids. The modern-day version of embalming was developed during the Civil War when it’s estimated that 40,000 soldiers were embalmed. At that point, speed and convenience was the priority, which meant embalming fluids were very different than before in Egypt.

Below is an overview of how ancient Egyptian embalming ingredients compare to the embalming fluids that are used today

Unique Embalming Fluids for Different Body Parts

In Egypt during the 7th Century B.C. the embalming process was actually very sophisticated, and now we know more about how morticians preserved the dead. What’s interesting is that, unlike today, ancient Egyptian morticians preserved different body parts in different ways using various embalming mixtures. For example, a blend of pistachio oil and castor oil was solely used to embalm the head. 

Not surprisingly, it took ancient Egyptian morticians weeks to embalm and preserve a body. But it’s still an impressive feat given that they had none of the technology and little understanding of anatomy that we have today. 

Natural Ingredients vs Toxic Chemicals

No matter what body part was being embalmed one thing remained constant. The embalming fluids used by ancient Egyptian morticians were made of natural ingredients, not toxic chemicals.

In the 1860s when embalming became more commonplace in the U.S., arsenic was the key preservative in embalming fluids. Arsenic is a natural chemical that is highly toxic. However, once formaldehyde was discovered in 1867 it quickly replaced arsenic as the primary preservative, and it’s still a key ingredient in most embalming fluids today. Formaldehyde is also highly toxic and a known carcinogen. That means formaldehyde can cause cancer.

It’s a stark contrast from the ingredients used by ancient Egyptian embalmers. And yet, the Egyptians are well known for their ability to preserve bodies of the dead. The new analysis of their embalming fluids is further proof that the toxic chemicals that are used today aren’t necessary. There are alternatives that are natural, safe and effective. They may not be as convenient to use as the typical embalming substances, but preserving the health of the environment is worth reevaluating the formulas that are used today.

At Cremation.Green we never use toxic embalming fluid that is dangerous for morticians and can pollute the Earth. Our natural burial service doesn’t require the use of any type of embalming. If you would like to know more about how we safely preserve bodies in an environmentally-friendly way give us a call, email or text any hour of the day. 

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Marlaena Gonzales

Funeral Director
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