A mummy that dates back more than 3,000 years is puzzling archaeologists because it was prepared in a way that nobody has ever seen before, revealing new insights into the death rituals of ancient Egyptians.
In addition to the linen wrappings commonly spooled around Egpytian mummies, the mummy was wrapped in a mud carapace (a shell, or cocoon) that reveals “a mortuary treatment not previously documented in the Egyptian archaeological record,” according to a new study.
The mud carapace hints that the remains of this person—likely a non-royal woman who died around the age of 30—got bashed up at some point and required a special repair trick, according to a study led by Karin Sowada, an archaeologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, published on Wednesday in PLOS ONE.
In other words, it appears as though archaeologists have uncovered a postmortem screw-up, possibly by tomb raiders, that required a fix. That fix, the researchers say, is likely to have had spiritual meaning as well.
“The body was subjected to subsequent post-mortem damage in unknown circumstances,” said Sowada and her colleagues. “In an apparent attempt to repair and reunify the damaged body in antiquity, the individual was then subject to some rewrapping, packing and padding with textiles, and application of the mud carapace.”
The muddy mummy was removed from Egypt by Sir Charles Nicholson during the 1850s under unclear circumstances, which the study notes “is sadly the case for many human bodies procured in Egypt by European and American collectors in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Nicholson donated the mummy to the University of Sydney, where it is now part of the Nicholson Collection at the Chau Chak Wing Museum. The inscription on the coffin claims that the mummified remains belong to a titled woman called Meruah, but Sowada and her colleagues discovered that this body is actually an imposter, according to a 2011 study.
“Local dealers likely placed an unrelated mummified body in the coffin to sell a more complete ‘set,’ a well-known practice in the local antiquities trade,” the team said in the new paper.
In the late 1990s, researchers used computed tomography (CT) to non-invasively scan the body and its wrappings, which revealed the hardened shell made of mud. However, it wasn’t until Sowada’s team re-scanned the mummy in December 2017, using improved techniques, that fine details about the mud carapace were exposed.
These innovations enabled the researchers to map out the properties of the mud carapace with unprecedented precision, demonstrating that it was applied to the body in contiguous sheets. The depth of the mud layer ranges from a few millimeters thick on the face to about two centimeters over the legs. Sowada and her colleagues also detected a base coat of white pigment over the carapace, possibly derived from limestone, with a red-brown ground mineral pigment covering the face.
The mud carapace was likely added to the mummy within a generation or two after the person died, to fix damage that could have been caused by ancient tomb raiders, the study said.
“The time between the mummification of the body, the burial, the first incident of damage, and the application of the carapace is likely to have been brief,” according to Sowada’s team. “Tombs and even simple graves were often robbed within a short time after interment of the deceased, as, despite the significance placed on afterlife beliefs throughout ancient Egyptian history, the obligation of the living to attend to the needs of the dead was generally short-lived in the non-royal context.”
Repairing the bodily damage may not have been the only motivation for the application of the muddy body mask. The carapace could also have “ aided the metaphysical transition of the deceased into the afterlife and the sphere of the god Osiris,” according to the study.
In ancient Egyptian mythology, Osiris was the god of the underworld and resurrection, so mortuary practices naturally reflected elements of his mythological story. Osiris himself was torn apart and reassembled, a bodily reunification process that may be reflected by the rehabilitation of the ancient mud mummy.
“The subsequent application of the mud carapace, in conjunction with some rewrapping and repacking, would have served to reunify the corporeal integrity of the deceased and ensure their continued association with Osiris,” Sowada and her colleagues said. “Mud may have been considered particularly effective in facilitating this process, given associations found in the textual and archaeological record between the Osiris’ re-birth and the renewed fecundity of Egypt’s agricultural soil following the Nile inundation.”
Given that nothing like the carapace has been found before, the team plans to build on this study by searching for similar shells around other mummies that date back to about 1200 BC, during a period known as the late New Kingdom.
“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,” the researchers concluded.