The name Tutankhamun conjures for many people the image of a glittering, golden representation of a pharaoh after death, laid to rest in a magnificent sarcophagus. So famous is the long-dead ruler that his coffin informs most of our ideas about what an Ancient Egyptian burial should look like. In the case of many mummies, though, precious metal and jewels came a close second to a mysterious jet-black covering that completely obscured those fine details. But now a team of British scientists has decoded the mystery of the sombre-looking caskets.
This incredible research was carried out by a team of experts at London’s British Museum. There, in the labs underneath the exhibition space, a team of researchers have been analyzing samples resulting from digs in Egypt and Sudan. What they found has shed more light on the funeral processes of the Ancient Egyptians – and it goes way further than just mummies.
Research assistant Dr. Kate Fulcher, of the Department of Scientific Research at the museum, was involved in the study, which carried out experiments on myriad samples of the mysterious dark substance. Found in the remains of at least two burial sites, experts have, until recently, had no idea why the material was used or even what was in it. In a blog post for the institution, Fulcher explained why the work was so important.
Fulcher wrote, “Ancient Egyptian funerals and burial practices were so secret that very little was written about them, and only a handful of depictions are known.” And that’s despite the fact that we all have an idea of the practices at the time, including mummification. But the details, it seems, are far harder to come by.
As Fulcher explained, “One of the ways to investigate [Ancient Egyptian funerary] practices is using scientific analysis to determine the materials used and the ways in which they were applied.” And where the black goo was concerned, that involved a very specific piece of hi-tech equipment: one that can identify compounds using the tiniest of particles.
In order to identify the black goo’s use and components, Fulcher and her team used a piece of equipment known as a Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometer, or GC-MS. In essence, this is a machine capable of breaking down compounds and identifying them through their mass. And for this research, the scientists tested more than 100 samples of the mysterious black substance.
In order to find out what compounds the black goo contained, the samples were vaporized before being sent down a long, thin tube. This process separated the various molecules, at which point they could be identified. In addition, the GC-MS could also tell researchers in what quantities each ingredient appeared.
The samples all came from coffins and burial cases, but experts’ most interesting example of a goo-covered coffin came from an incredible piece of ancient history. A complete mummy, fully intact and with minimal damage, had been smothered in the substance too. And it wasn’t just the 3,000-year-old remains that were well-preserved.
Not only was the body completely untouched; so too was its entire funerary apparatus. That includes the fabric wrapping used to wrap the corpse and the sarcophagus. Dating to Egypt’s 22nd Dynasty, or between 945 and 720 B.C., the mummy is a beautifully preserved example of the period’s burial practices.
Using non-invasive techniques such as the GC-MS, the team found out lots of things about the Ancient Egyptian method of burial. But as it turns out, we also know quite a lot about the 3,000-year-old mummy in life, despite the millennia. A priest at Karnak’s Temple of Amun, his name was Djedkhonsiu-ef-ankh, and he played a very important role in worship of the Sun-God.
According to Fulcher’s blog post, the priest had two jobs at the temple. And one of those roles marked him out as one of the most high-status people in town. Known as the “Opener of the Doors of Heaven,” Djedkhonsiu-ef-ankh was one of the few men allowed into the shrine containing the sacred image of Amun. Clearly, then, he was an important person 3,000 years ago.
As a result of the priest’s status, when he died, he appears to have been afforded the best funerary apparatus available at the time. His sarcophagus has several different layers, including the aforementioned fabric wrapping and a wooden exterior case. However, his entire coffin has been drenched in the mysterious black substance.
And when we say the entire coffin, we mean it. Not only is Djedkhonsiu-ef-ankh’s gold sarcophagus covered in the jet-black substance, it’s also glued into the wooden case with the same stuff. Of course, the compound completely obscures what most likely includes incredible detailing on the priest’s death mask.
Who, then, would want to have such an elaborate sarcophagus covered up in such an enduring way? And more to the point, why? Well, Djedkhonsiu-ef-ankh’s status as priest may well provide vital clues as to what kind of people may have decided to include the black substance in their loved ones’ funeral rites.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the clues is simply financial. According to Fulcher’s blog, “Not everyone got the goo treatment. Evidence suggests that it was likely to have been reserved for social elites.” And Djedkhonsiu-ef-ankh definitely qualifies as a member of that group. Indeed, in that respect, the priest was in good company.
Fulcher went on, “Some of the earliest examples [of the black goo] are from royal burials.” In fact, even the aforementioned superstar pharaoh Tutankhamun’s funerary apparatus underwent the sticky treatment. According to the researcher, “bucketfuls” of the stuff were cleaned from the famous sarcophagus after its discovery.
It wasn’t just priests and royalty that could opt for the somber sarcophagus look. Fulcher wrote, “The black goo was also available to non-royals, but the family had to be able to afford the treatment.” So, it seems that the treatment was considered high-status, but that doesn’t explain why it was so dark. The researcher, though, has an interesting theory about the color choice.
It seems that the use of the dark-colored goo served two distinct purposes. The first, perhaps unsurprisingly, involved keeping the entombed mummy safe and secure. As we mentioned, the substance dried to a hard lacquer-like finish, giving the funerary apparatus a lovely sheen. But it also helped ensure every layer – mummy, sarcophagus, and case – were all much harder to penetrate.
In the post for the British Museum, Fulcher explained the process of sticking the burial layers together, writing, “Several liters of warm black ‘goo’ were poured all over the mummy case, covering it completely, effectively cementing the case into the coffin.” But while security might explain the substance’s thick composition, it doesn’t help us understand why the Egyptians chose such a dark color. The research assistant has a theory about that as well.
Indeed, it seems that the priest’s incredibly well-preserved remains have helped shed light on why the goo was so dark. The Ancient Egyptians appear to have associated the color black with a couple of meaningful and important religious tenets. And they both have to do Osiris, the god of death.
Many Ancient Egyptians believed that when they died, they became Osiris, but in a different form. In addition, while the deity was the god of death, he was also associated with rebirth and regeneration. And as we all know, the Egyptians believed in an afterlife, which helps explain why all three of those concepts were tied in together. But the theory doesn’t end there.
As Fulcher wrote, “Osiris was called ‘the black one’ in various funerary texts and is often depicted with black skin and in the guise of a mummified body.” This could well explain why the priest and other mummies look the way they do: for the researcher, this is more than mere coincidence.
Fulcher went on, “So, we have interlinking concepts of black, Osiris, and regeneration. It could therefore be reasoned that the practice of coating coffins in black goo links the coffins to regeneration associated with Osiris.” So, that takes care of the why. Now it’s time for the what.
Religious beliefs may explain why some Egyptian coffins are covered in the black goo. But science can be very exact when it comes to telling us exactly what the substance contains. As we mentioned earlier, using the GC-MS, samples of the compound were vaporized and sent through a tube to determine their chemical make-up. And what Fulcher and her team discovered may well surprise you.
Indeed, the list of ingredients the researchers discovered in the goo is surprisingly varied. Not only are the components intriguing, but many of them also came from far afield. Announcing the results on the British Museum blog, though, Fulcher was careful to point out that the list was in no way definitive.
As the researcher explained, “It is possible there were other ingredients [in the goo] as well, that we can no longer detect, because they were volatile and evaporated, or have degraded to undetectable levels over the 3,000 years since the goo was applied.” But while the list of components might not be definitive, the researcher did discover that the same compounds appeared time and again.
According to Fulcher, the test results showed something intriguing. As she wrote, “The exact ingredients vary from one coffin to the next, but the goo was always made from some of these ingredients.” And the substance included some very interesting compounds. Ranging from plant resin and tree oil to bitumen, the components themselves each tell a story.
Let’s take, for instance, bitumen. This substance, a form of crude oil, has a very specific origin. We’ll let Fulcher explain from here, from the British Museum blog. She wrote, “Bitumen is made from living things (like plants, animals and single-celled organisms) that have died and been compressed over millions of years. Because these living things vary due to the local environment, bitumen also varies from place to place.”
By studying the various plant and animal matter, researchers can determine where in the world a sample of bitumen originates. And in the case of Djedkhonsiu-ef-ankh, the crude oil contained in the black goo on his coffin came from the Dead Sea, off the coast of modern-day Jordan. But that wasn’t the only non-native ingredient Fulcher discovered.
Indeed, two different tree resins were found among the black goo’s ingredients. The first, Pistacia, can be found in various countries dotted around the Mediterranean, each of them hundreds of miles from Egypt. And the second, from an unidentified conifer, could have come from anywhere north of modern-day Lebanon. And the ingredients don’t end there.
In addition to the tree resins and bitumen, Fulcher and her team also discovered beeswax, plant oil and animal fat among the components of the black goo. All of these items appear to prove the existence of a dynamic cross-country trade in funerary apparatus. But the results also highlighted yet another component of the Egyptian burial process. And to fully explain that, let’s talk mummification.
As we mentioned earlier, the process of mummification was a closely guarded secret during the time of Ancient Egypt. As such, what we’ve been able to piece together may not represent the whole process, but it certainly captured the world’s imagination. We’re sure that even now, you’re picturing the ritual as you read this. But while you may know some of the steps, it actually all starts with the belief in an afterlife.
In order to get to the afterlife, though, the deceased’s physical remains had to be as complete and recognizable as possible, at least, outwardly. Thus, the process of mummification was born, painstakingly preserving a body using a very specific set of rules and rituals. And it all begins with removal of the brain.
After making a small hole near the decedent’s nose, a long hook was inserted into the skull, and part of the brain dragged out. Then, the organs were removed via a small incision on the abdomen. Once the heart had dried out, it was put back in the body, before the remains were rinsed using a mixture of wine and spices. Then the salting process began.
Once salted, the body was left to desiccate for 70 days. But after 40 days, the organ cavity was stuffed with linen and salt to give a more realistic shape to the remains. Once the drying period was up, the corpse was then wrapped in fabric. And these steps appear to have something in common with Fulcher’s research.
In the researcher’s blog post, she wrote, “We can’t say for certain but, significantly, previous analyses of mummification balm (used on the bodies themselves) have shown it to be made of the same ingredients as the black goo that we have been studying on the outside of coffins and mummy cases.” And, for Fulcher, this commonality has some interesting implications.
This surprising connection, for the researcher, proves that the substance was multi-purpose. Fulcher wrote,“This means the black goo was being used at different points in the burial process – during the preparation of the dead body, and then again during the funeral, on top of the mummy case or coffin.”
In addition, black goo has been found on funerary statues, boxes and jars found in burial chambers, not just in Egypt but even further afield in Sudan. Despite their discovery, those samples have yet to be tested. But, for Fulcher, it’s further proof of the black goo’s importance in the funerary rites of the period.
As Fulcher explained, “It appears that the goo was a ritually important anointing fluid used for a range of purposes, all relating to the burial of the deceased and their transformation into Osiris.” Clearly, the goo itself was significant, but it’s more common on sarcophagi interred from about 1069 B.C. to circa 664 B.C. And the researcher isn’t sure why that might be.
For Fulcher, the reasons why the goo is more common during that period could be manifold. As she explained in the blog post, “Examples of the use of black goo are more common in the Third Intermediate Period… which may be related to changes in funerary practices, or because more coffins are preserved from this time.” Whatever the origin, after 3,000 years, it’s safe to say the substance definitely ensured a form of life after death for those mummies.