Mystery unwrapped: Texas A&M team uncovers mummy secrets

COLLEGE STATION, October 26, 2004 Some Texas A&M University researchers examining ancient Egyptian mummies may have unwrapped literally some of the mysteries that embalmers used to preserve bodies more than 3,000 years ago.

Mahlon "Chuck" Kennicutt II, MoonKoo Kim and Yaorong Qian of Texas A&M's College of Geosciences, along with colleagues from the University of Alexandria, have discovered that tar originating from natural oil seeps in the Middle East area was used in the preservation and mummification process by Egyptians thousands of years ago.

Their findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Geoarchaeology.

Examining areas near the Suez Canal, Kennicutt and the team also learned that tar fueled fires in glass factories used by the surrounding communities.

"The tar the Egyptians used contains molecular fingerprints that reveal interesting information," Kennicutt explains.

"First, we are able to 'fingerprint' the tars from mummies that were embalmed as early as 900 B.C. These fingerprints can then be matched with known oil seeps to establish their origin.

"Also, the Egyptians apparently discovered that treating mummies with tar helped in the preservation process. The tar acts as a natural watersealer, meaning little or no moisture penetrates the wrappings, which could destroy the body. The Egyptians probably knew more about mummification than anyone else in the world at that time, and the use of natural tar appears to be an important process in their preservation efforts."

Kennicutt says the watersealing properties of tar were also discovered along the Texas Gulf Coast, where native Indians used the substance to coat canoes and boats. But that occurred about 2,000 years after the Egyptians learned the trick.

"Another interesting thing we learned was that some of this tar used by the Egyptians didn't come from nearby areas

Contact: Keith Randall
Texas A&M University

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