Mummy case with gilded face. Dried black liquid covers most of the case.

Research project

Molecular analysis of an ancient Egyptian burial residue

Supported by

Wellcome Trust

Key project information

Duration

March 2016 – March 2022

Contact details

Email: science@britishmuseum.org

Partner

University College London

Supported by

Wellcome Trust

Grant number

Wellcome Trust Strategic Award 097365/Z/11/Z

What was the mysterious black liquid poured over some ancient Egyptian mummy cases and coffins – and why was this done?

Residue from this black liquid has been found covering the decoration and writing on mummy cases and coffins. Ancient texts do not record what this liquid was or why it was used in the funeral process. One way we can learn more about this process is through scientific analysis of the black residues.

This project analysed the black coatings and anointing fluids found on 20 ancient Egyptian coffins, mummy cases and funerary objects from the 22nd Dynasty (about 900–750 BC). It determined what the residue was and where its ingredients came from in an effort to learn more about the funerary process at this time. 

Find out about the latest project news

About the project

Djedkhonsiu-ef-ankh was a priest who lived almost 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. When he died, he was mummified, wrapped in fine linen and sewn into his highly decorated mummy case. At his funeral, the case was lowered into his coffin and covered in around thirteen litres of warm black ‘goo’ that cemented the case into the coffin. 

The use of black coatings on Egyptian coffins goes back to the Middle Kingdom (about 1980–1630 BC). The blackness of the liquid is likely to be linked to Osiris – also known as ‘the Lord of the Underworld’ and ‘the Black One’. Its use may have increased in popularity in the 22nd Dynasty because it prevented the coffin and mummy case from being re-used, which was a concern when resources were scarce and burial goods were being appropriated. It also demonstrated the wealth of the deceased and their family.

Black coatings and ritual deposits are an important source of evidence about rituals of funerary practice in ancient Egypt. This project analysed over 100 samples of black residue from 20 funerary items (coffins, mummy cases, shabti boxes and Osiris statues) and builds on the Museum's long-running research interest in this area.

Aims

This project aimed to identify what the black liquids used to coat ancient Egyptian mummy cases and coffins were made from by using a molecular fingerprinting technique known as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). This technique makes it possible to determine what molecules are present in a sample and in what quantities.

Previous studies of ritual black coatings on coffins from ancient Egypt have taken single small samples from objects from different points in time. This study, instead, took a large number of samples from coffins and mummy cases from a single dynasty. It also examined samples taken from different parts of the same objects, allowing the results to be fully contextualised for the first time.

The project also aimed to:

  • Determine the likely sources of ingredients present in the black ritual substances
  • Understand how the materials were processed and applied
  • Identify patterns in the use of black coatings to better understand why it was applied as part of the funerary process.

Conclusion

This study has revealed that the black liquid was made by mixing together plant oil, animal fat, conifer resin, resin from pistacia trees, beeswax and bitumen.

Analysis showed that most of the bitumen used in the black coatings came from the Dead Sea, over 600km from the burials at Luxor. The trees producing the resins did not grow in ancient Egypt so the resins would also have been imported.

The substances identified in the black liquid overlap with those used in preparing the body for mummification. This may suggest a link between these black fluids and the rites performed during a funeral. Their use may have stemmed from a common set of rituals that probably helped the successful preservation of the body and that people also believed would help with the transition of the deceased to the afterlife as Osiris – when a person died, they were thought to become a form of the god Osiris, who is associated with death and rebirth. 

Meet the team

Headshot of Rebecca Stacey.

Rebecca Stacey

Principal Investigator
Department of Scientific Research
British Museum

Headshot of John H Taylor.

John H. Taylor

Curator
Department of Egypt and Sudan
British Museum

Margaret Serpico headshot.

Margaret Serpico

Project Egyptologist
Honorary Research Fellow
University College London

Headshot of Kate Fulcher

Kate Fulcher

Research Assistant
Department of Scientific Research
British Museum

Project team

Project supporter

Project supporter

Supported by 

Wellcome Trust logo

Outputs

Molecular analysis of black coatings and anointing fluids from ancient Egyptian coffins, mummy cases, and funerary objects.

JOURNAL ARTICLE

Kate Fulcher; Margaret Serpico; John H. Taylor; Rebecca Stacey

PNAS 118 (18) e2100885118

Published in 2021