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November 20, 2013

New study sheds light on 'meat mummies' in ancient tombs

So you've gone through all the trouble of mummifying a loved one. You've hired embalmers to remove her organs, treat her body with a precise mixture of oils and balms, and carefully wrap her in bandages. You've spared no expense on a lavish tomb, beautifully decorated and stuffed with riches. You've even mummified her pets, all to make sure she will fully enjoy her afterlife. There's just one last question: What is your beloved mummy going to eat for the rest of eternity?

For some ancient Egyptians, the answer included meat. In King Tutankhamun's tomb, for example, archaeologists found 48 wooden cases of butchered cuts of beef and poultry. But unlike offerings of fruit and grains, which could last for quite a while once dehydrated and placed in dry tombs, pieces of meat required special treatment. After just a few hours in the desert heat, "they will become a terrible mess if you don't take some steps to preserve them," says Richard Evershed, an archaeological chemist at the University of Bristol in England. The solution? Mummify.

Now, a team of researchers led by Evershed is shedding light on the embalming processes used to create these so-called meat mummies. The work fills a gap when it comes to studying mummies from ancient Egypt, says Andrew Wade, a bioarchaeologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who was not involved with the research. "We've done quite a bit on human Egyptian mummies and even a fair bit on animal mummies," he explains. "But the meat mummies . . . they'd been sort of left on their own."

To find out which chemicals were used to mummify meat, Evershed and his team used mass spectroscopy to analyze samples of the bandages taken from four meat mummies housed in Egypt's Cairo Museum and the British Museum in London. For some of the meat mummies, such as a calf that had been prepared as food and placed in a tomb dated between 1070 and 945 B.C.E. and a goat leg mummified around 1290 B.C.E., the only preservative was some type of animal fat smeared over the bandages.

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