Unusual mud shell covers an Egyptian mummy

The mud may have repaired damage or mimicked royal burial customs

ancient Egyptian mummy sarcophagus and mud shell

An ancient Egyptian mummy (pictured, with the coffin it had been inside when purchased by a collector in the 1850s). CT scans of the mummy showed that under its linen wrappings, the body is encased in a jacket of mud.

K. Sowada et al/PLOS ONE 2021 (CC BY 4.0)

In ancient Egypt, a mud wrap did not necessarily mean a day at the spa.

Scientists have turned up an unusual mummy from Egypt. Its mud wrap is making some scientists rethink how ancient Egyptians preserved their dead — at least bodies that didn’t come from royalty.

Karin Sowada is an archaeologist in Australia at Macquarie University in Sydney. She was part of a team that performed CT scans of the mummy from around 1,200 B.C. Between layers of linen wrappings, the body was covered in a mud shell. To date, this has never been seen in Egyptian mummies. The researchers describe this mud covering for the dead February 3 in PLOS ONE.

Mud cakes the mummy’s legs to a thickness of about 2.5 centimeters (1 inch). The mud is much thinner over the mummy’s face — in places it’s as little as 1.5 millimeters (6 hundredths of an inch) thick. Chemical analyses from around the head indicate the mud here is covered with a white pigment topped by a red mineral paint. That white stuff may have been made from limestone.

The mummy’s body shows damage. These include leg fractures. Scientists suspect the mud wrap may have been used to restore the body’s shape after it was desecrated, potentially by tomb robbers. This repair would have ensured that the deceased could continue existing in the afterlife.

A costly resin covers many royal mummies from that time. The newfound mud shell may have been a poor man’s version of that resin, the Sydney group says. “Status in Egyptian society was in large part measured by proximity to the king,” notes Sowada. So mimicking funeral practices used for royalty may have been a status symbol.

The identity and status of the mud-wrapped body remains a mystery. Sowada’s team would like to see how other commoners from ancient Egypt were mummified. This might show not only how routine mud shells were, but also who used them and why.

Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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