The ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife where the body of a dead person would be needed by the spirit. In order to preserve the deceased in as lifelike condition, they developed artificial mummification to a high level of sophistication.
For a long time, the mix used in mummification remained a mystery for scientists. But with new techniques, they managed to solve it, and study the mix to uncover the secret potentials behind its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.
The latest efforts in this field were conducted by researchers at the University of Derby, who tested the efficiency of Pharaonic embalming materials in fighting bacteria in some human corpses. They also carried out another experiment in which they applied the same materials on rabbit carcasses. Then, they compared the results with the effects of an antibiotic called "Chlorophemical".
According to the study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, it was widely believed that natron was the main desiccation agent in the preparation of Egyptian mummified bodies in the 18th Dynasty, and that its role is limited to this function. However, the new study proved this information is inaccurate.
Natron is a natural mixture of sodium chloride, sodium sulphate, sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate found in the Nile Delta, which has significant desiccation properties, but it is currently unclear if natron has further beneficial properties for the embalming process.
In their study, the researchers determined the properties of old embalming fluids comprising of natron, palm wine and pine resin, and applied them on an artificial mummification of a human body at the Medico-legal Center in Sheffield, UK. Then they compared their effectiveness to the activity of a modern day antibiotic, Chloramphenicol.
In addition, the field study using rabbit carcasses investigated whether pine resin has insect repellent properties. Results demonstrated that palm wine and natron had higher antibacterial activity than Chlorophemical against the Gram-positive bacteria, (Staphylococcus aureus), and that natron had higher antibacterial activity than Chloramphenicol against the Gram-negative bacteria, Escherichia coli.
The other field study showed a delay in the colonization of necrophagous insects on the carcasses treated with pine resin. They found no insect mortality on any of the carcasses during the study, indicating that the pine resin was acting as a repellent only and not as an insecticide.
Lead Author Kate Barnes, from the College of Life and Natural Sciences, University of Derby, said: "Although this is a preliminary study, the clear results strongly suggest that the embalming fluids used in mummification procedures during the 18th Dynasty had a number of properties, which could affect the development of associated bacterial and insect communities."