Dead sea asphalt in egyptian mummies: Molecular evidence

Abstract

The use of asphalt in the mummification process, which was practised in the ancient Egyptian dynasties f rom at least the early Four th Dynasty (ca. 2600 B.C.) to the end of the Roman Period (4th Century A.D.) [1] has been a matter of controversy for a long time. Several of the ancient historians, such as Diodorus of Sicily and Strabo ( ls t Century A.D.) , specifically state that Dead Sea asphalt was exported to Egypt to be used for embalming [2]. Diodorus describes a major battle between Egyptians and Syrians to control the trade in Dead Sea asphalt , which was considered a major source of revenue [2]. Compared to this, several archeologists denied that asphalt was used for mummificat ion. The widespread black material in mummies, as for example in the mummy of Tutankhamun [3], was assumed to be a mixture of wood-derived tar and resins. Lucas [4], in his definitive report on ancient Egyptian materials, pointed out that asphalt was perhaps not used by the ancient Egyptians and, based on solubility tests, concluded that no convincing evidence of the presence of asphalts in mummies can be obtained. Several analyses made in the 1930's and 1940's using fluorescence and classical analytical methods [5], however, suggested that asphalt was possibly present in Egyptian mummies of the Persian Per iod [4, 6]. Asphalts and other petroleum-related bitumens were widely used throughout the Ancient Wor ld [7]. The widespread occurrence of surface seepages of asphalts and heavy oils in Mesopotamia led to the uti l ization of this material since the times of ancient Sumer. The asphalt was used as mortar , for waterproofing, road-building material , as an adhesive, as well as for magic and medicine [5, 7]. Historical evidence for the use of asphalt by the ancient Egyptians comes from the Bible. The ark of bulrushes in which Moses was placed was caulked with slime and pitch (Exodus 2, 3). "Slime" is the King James ' translation of the Hebrew word Heimar, which is assumed to be synonymous with asphalt [7]. Egypt, on the other hand, lacks any significant surface occurrence of asphalt or oil. Petroleum seepages are known on the eastern shores of the Sinai Peninsula, but none on the mainland. The closest major deposit of asphalt is in the Dead Sea area [21. Recent organic geochemical studies of the molecular composi t ion of Dead Sea asphalts and crude oils f rom the Dead Sea area [8, 9], together with the observation that petroleum products retain some of their impor tant molecular signatures even when this material has been exposed to severe aerobic microbial degradat ion [8, 10, 11], provided the basis for a comparat ive investigat ion of mummy asphalts. Four samples were taken from the collection of the British Museum (Table 1). They cover a wide range of ages, and in each case a substantial amount of asphalt-l ike material was present to ensure that it is not a trace contaminant . The mummy asphalt samples were treated with dichloromethane under ultrasonication. After fil tration, the residues were ground and the extraction procedure repeated. Both extracts were combined and, after removal of the por t ion insoluble in hexane, separated into saturated hydrocarbons, aromat ic hydrocarbons and heterocompounds by medium-pressure liquid chromatography [12]. The extract and liquid chromatography fraction yields are given in Table 1. A considerable propor t ion of

DOI: 10.1007/BF00366476

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Cite this paper

@article{Rullktter1988DeadSA, title={Dead sea asphalt in egyptian mummies: Molecular evidence}, author={J{\"{u}rgen Rullk{\"{o}tter and Arie Nissenbaum}, journal={Naturwissenschaften}, year={1988}, volume={75}, pages={618-621} }