Egyptian Funerary Ritual Residues in the 22nd Dynasty

Project Team

  • Rebecca Stacey
    Senior Scientist, Department of Scientific Research
  • Margaret Serpico
    Egyptologist, Visiting Academic, Department of Scientific Research
  • John Taylor
    Curator, Ancient Egypt and Sudan
  • Kate Fulcher
    Research Assistant, Department of Scientific Research

Partners

  • Ben Stern
    Lecturer in Archaeological Science, School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, University of Bradford

Supported By

  • Wellcome Trust

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Some decorated Egyptian coffins and cartonnage cases had a black substance painted onto or poured over them during their manufacture and/or the funerary process. What was this substance? To what extent does it vary between coffins, or across each coffin? Often it conceals inscriptions and decoration - was it always black? Are the ingredients used in this black substance similar to those used in mummification? How was it applied?

This programme of scientific analysis aims to identify the chemical composition of organic ritual substances deposited on 22nd Dynasty decorated coffins and cartonnage cases in the British Museum, building on previous research. The project will contribute to a current major study of coffins/cartonnage dating to that period led by John Taylor and will also be integrated with an on-going project by Margaret Serpico and Ben Stern which looks more widely at ancient Egyptian funerary practices and includes analysis of organic ritual residues found on coffins of a broader chronological range in other museums.

Analysis will be conducted using gas chromatography mass spectrometry in the Scientific Research laboratories at the British Museum. Previous chemical analyses of black substances from a variety of funerary equipment, and mummification balms, have detected a range of components including resins, fats and oils, beeswax, and bitumen. One of the goals of this project is to expand the range of analytical techniques to investigate whether any materials in these complex mixtures have been overlooked or under-identified. By describing the material nature of the black anointing fluid, we can learn more about its workability and therefore how it may have been applied, for example, whether the application of heat was necessary, and whether it could be poured or painted.

The aims of this collaborative scientific/Egyptological project are to better understand the composition, manufacture, methods of application and patterns of use of ritual products. These aspects can be considered in conjunction with the production of the coffins, the chronological evolution of their decorative schema and, where possible, the status of the owners. Drawing on ancient Egyptian textual and archaeological sources, research can be integrated more widely to include study of the rituals associated with these products and the significance of their use in funerary practices.

Cartonnage case (containing mummy) of Djedkhonsuiufankh, covered in black liquid

Coffin of Padihorpakhered, with black liquid splashed on the face