Mummy labels may help to reconstruct climate of ancient Mediterranean

Scientists used Mummy labels to reconstruct the past climate, which is made of wood to provide insight into the past climate.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Mummy labels.
Mummy labels.


The Earth's climate has changed many times throughout its history, with much warmer and colder periods than we are currently experiencing.

Various ancient civilizations experienced varied climates in the past, which could have resulted in drought and even heatwaves like conditions. These changes could have influenced the ancient empire's living conditions, society, and economy. However, we don't know much about them.

Scientists have attempted to decode the climate of the ancient Mediterranean to gain a better understanding of the gone time. They used Mummy labels to reconstruct the past climate, which is made of wood.

“Mummy labels are just a proxy tool that we are using to reconstruct the climate of Roman Egypt, the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, and understand how climate fluctuations influenced changes in society, government, and the economy,” said Sabine Huebner, the leader of this project at the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), in an official release.  

Mummy labels made of different tree species

Mummy labels are relics found in large quantities in Egypt that are mostly well-preserved for scientific studies. Following embalming, these labels were inscribed with the details of the deceased person. The label included the name of the deceased, the name of the deceased's parents, or a short religious note to the body. This practice aided in the identification of the deceased, who would be unrecognizable once wrapped in bandages.

“Not only are there thousands of them in museums around the world, but they’re also made from lots of different tree species, such as pine, cypress, cedar, and juniper,” stated François Blondel, an archaeologist at the University of Geneva.

The team examined the wooden labels attached to Roman-era mummies for this study. The wooden labels have noticeable growth rings and could conceal information about the climate at the time. 

According to the statement, each ring represents the passage of one year. The presence of broad growth rings indicates good climatic conditions, implying that the tree grew faster. Much narrower rings, on the other hand, could be evidence of years of drought.

The SNSF team analyzed the ring sequences of over 300 labels for this study to identify instances where ring sequences match up with each other. 

The team was able to sketch an "initial outline" of what the climate used to be like in the eastern Mediterranean, modern-day Lebanon. According to the findings, the civilization experienced a few good years of climate here, as well as an "unfortunate succession of droughts there." 

The team is still working to determine the precise dates of these ancient events recorded in the rings.

The next step will be to examine more wood samples to accurately reconstruct the climate at the time. And identify the same pattern of growth rings in different tree species that existed back then to predict the dates of past events.

The study is published in the journal International Journal of Wood Culture.

Study abstract:

Mummy labels are relics found in large quantities in Egypt, often in an excellent state of preservation (like most woods preserved in arid environments). As a result, they are widespread in Roman Egyptian collections of many museums. These labels reflect funerary practices that possess Egyptian and Roman influences and are an important source of historical and archaeological information. These corpora of mummy labels offer several possibilities for investigation. The inscriptions on these labels have been the subject of an international project (Death on the Nile) in which all accessible objects were recorded in a database. However, the potential of these funerary objects extend beyond the inscriptions to the methods of manufacturing and cutting, the choice of species used, and their dendrochronological potential to better define their chronology and possibly their provenance. The study of mummy labels allows us to propose a new typology, some forms of which seem to be limited to certain necropolises. Mummy labels, whether made by the family of the deceased or by specific workshops, show that their realizations vary greatly, ranging from coarse specimens to others with beautiful detailing. They are made from endemic as well as imported species, which are symbolic of long-distance trade, especially for conifer trees, which are well represented. Their dendrochronological potential has also been demonstrated in numerous studies, some of which have allowed the identification of labels from the same tree, supported by inscriptions attesting to the same family relationship.

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