3,500 Year-Old Mummification Manual Unveils New Details

An Egyptologist recently translated the world's oldest surviving mummification manual.
Chris Young

Embalming and mummification in Ancient Egypt were considered sacred arts, crucial to an individual's swift passage to the afterlife. Secrets of the art are thought to have been passed on by word amongst very few individuals.

Until recently, only two Ancient Egyptian texts on mummification had been identified.

Sofie Schiødt, an Egyptologist from the University of Copenhagen was, therefore, surprised to uncover a short manual on embalming within a text primarily focused on herbal medicine, a press statement from the university explains.

The text, which Sofie Schiødt has been working on for her Ph.D. thesis, is the 3,500-year-old Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg. It derives its name from the fact that one-half of the papyrus belongs to the Louvre Museum in Paris and the other half is part of the University of Copenhagen’s Papyrus Carlsberg Collection. 

3,500 Year-Old Mummification Manual Unveils New Details
The papyrus details a process where the face is covered with a piece of red linen and aromatic substances. Source: Ida Christensen/University of Copenhagen

Schiødt has been able to help reconstruct the embalming process thanks to her translation. The University of Copenhagen press release points out that many details uncovered in Schiødt's new translation were not present in the two other known documents, and descriptions are highly detailed.

A memory aid for Ancient Egyptian embalmers

Schiødt says the ink-inscribed instructions read like a memory aid for specialists who needed to be reminded of the finer details of embalming. Details such as unguent recipes and the uses of various types of bandages are explained within the text.

"One of the exciting new pieces of information the text provides us with concerns the procedure for embalming the dead person’s face," Schiødt explains.

"We get a list of ingredients for a remedy consisting largely of plant-based aromatic substances and binders that are cooked into a liquid, with which the embalmers coat a piece of red linen," she continues. "The red linen is then applied to the dead person’s face in order to encase it in a protective cocoon of fragrant and anti-bacterial matter. This process was repeated at four-day intervals."

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Though this procedure has not previously been identified, Egyptologists had observed several mummies from the same period as the manual whose faces were covered in cloth and resin.

Outlining the four-day interval embalming process

The Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg manual also specifies that the process was divided into intervals of four, with embalmers working on the mummy every four days. These days were marked, 17 times, by a ritual procession of the mummy. A final two days of rituals then finalized the embalming period.

"The embalming, which was performed in a purpose-built workshop erected near the grave, took place over 70 days that were divided into two main periods – a 35-day drying period and a 35-day wrapping period," Schiødt explains.

3,500 Year-Old Mummification Manual Unveils New Details
A section of the papyrus that deals with medicinal herbs and skin swelling, Source: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection/University of Copenhagen

"During the drying period, the body was treated with dry natron both inside and outside. The natron treatment began on the fourth day of embalming after the purification of the body, the removal of the organs and the brain, and the collapsing of the eyes," she continues.

"The second 35-day period was dedicated to the encasing of the deceased in bandages and aromatic substances. The embalming of the face described in the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg belonged to this period."

Of course, such a lavish 70-day embalming period was only reserved for Egyptian royalty and nobility. Schiødt's findings provide us a tantalizing glimpse into an ancient world that revered its deceased royalty. A full translation of the papyrus manual is scheduled for publication in 2022.