10 AUGUST, 2015 – 14:24 MARK MILLER ancient-origins
Medical researchers studying the ancient, mummified bodies of a rich Egyptian architect and his wife whose organs were not removed concluded they had been treated with anti-microbial and insecticide agents that preserved their organs, including their eyes. This contradicts previous researchers who assumed that because the couple’s organs were not removed they had undergone a poorly done mummification.
The unplundered tomb of this couple, Kha and Merit of the 18th Dynasty, was found in 1906. It had some beautiful and valuable burial goods, including five nested and gilded coffins, rich gold jewelry, linen clothing and monogrammed underwear, and two of the earliest known copies of The Book of the Dead, says a new article in the journal PLOS One by medical and Egyptological researchers from several institutions.
To better understand the couple’s rare mummification process, the researchers studied the bodies using new generation X-ray viewing and chemical microanalyses. The authors, led by Raffaella Bianucci, wrote that the two underwent a relatively high quality process of mummification.“Elucidated ‘recipes,’ whose components had anti-bacterial and anti-insecticidal properties, were used to treat their bodies. The time and effort undoubtedly employed to embalm both Kha and Merit and the use of imported costly resins, notably Pistacia, do not support the previously held view that the two individuals were poorly mummified,” they wrote.
The researchers found that the couple’s internal organs, including their abdominal and thoracic organs, their brains and eyeballs, were very well preserved by the natron salt used during mummification about 3,500 years after their deaths. Their bodies are stored at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.
“Kha’s external wrappings were treated with an embalming “recipe” consisting of animal fat/plant oil mixed with a small amount of balsam/aromatic plant extract, a plant gum and a conifer resin. The coniferous resin and the “balsam” gave the embalming “recipe” highly preservative—anti-bacterial and anti-insecticidal—properties,” the authors wrote. Merit’s recipe was an unusual oil mixed with a small amount of balsam, a conifer resin, beeswax and plant gum. These ingredients provided some anti-bacterial properties. Merit’s outer wrappings were treated with natron salt, which contradicts earlier assessments that she was not mummified well, the authors also stated.
Merit died young, between 25 and 35 years old. She was buried in Kha’s coffin, which was in the shape of a man. Researchers think the ancient Egyptian embalmers went to some efforts to embalm the couple.
The couple were known to Egyptologists around the turn of the 20th century because their funerary chapel with a stele capped by a pyramidion was at a family gravesite at Deir el Medina cemetery. Their actual tomb was found quite a distance away, which explains why it wasn’t plundered. The authors wrote:
Due to its unexpected location, some 25 meters north of the family funerary chapel (coordinates apr. 25.7°N 32.6°E), the tomb of Kha and Merit, the most intact non-royal tomb from the New Kingdom, had never been violated. Along with the two large wooden sarcophagi containing the mummies of the architect and his wife, over 500 hundred items, all of which would have served Kha and Merit in the Afterlife, were recovered from the tomb. As one of few Egyptian burials to remain entirely undisturbed since the time it was sealed, the discovery is of greatest importance for the reconstruction of funerary customs of the New Kingdom. It also represents a seminal contribution to a knowledge and understanding of funerary customs of non-royal individuals at this time.
Scholars think Kha came from a modest background and rose to a higher position because of his skill as an architect. He served three 18th Dynasty kings who ruled in the 15th and 14th centuries BC. Kha died during the reign of Amenhotep III, who ruled until 1348 BC. His most eminent position was as director of the Royal Works in Deir el Medina, where he managed the construction of royal tombs.
Featured image: Kha’s head in X-ray with a rich gold collar, gold earrings and an opal plate, possibly an amulet. Note the shrunken brain.(PLOS One)
By Mark Miller
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