Archaeologists Are Studying a New Type of Mummy They’ve Never Encountered

BY Becky Ferreira


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 Egyptian 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 the study led by archaeologist Karin Sowada and published 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.

“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.”

-Karin Sowada, archaeologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia

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. 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.”

-Karin Sowada, archaeologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia

In the late 1990s, researchers used computed tomography (CT) to scan the body and its wrappings, which revealed the hardened shell made of mud. Sowada’s team re-scanned the mummy in December 2017 using improved techniques, exposing fine details about the mud carapace.

These innovations enabled researchers to map out the properties of the carapace with unprecedented precision, demonstrating that it was applied to the body in contiguous sheets. 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, with a red-brown ground mineral pigment covering the face. The carapace was likely added a generation or two after the person died, to fix damage potentially caused by ancient tomb raiders.

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 process that may be reflected by the ancient mud mummy.

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