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November 19, 2013

New study sheds light on 'meat mummies' in ancient tombs

(Continued)

Mummified beef ribs from an earlier tomb tell a more elaborate story, however. Found with the in-laws of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who were buried in style between 1386 and 1349 B.C.E. in the Valley of the Kings, the beef rib mummy was treated with a resin from a plant belonging to the genus Pistacia, the researchers reported online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Pistacia resins were very expensive, imported from the Mediterranean and used by elites as incense, varnish, and-perhaps significantly-food flavoring. They have also occasionally shown up as a preservative used on human mummies.

But at this point, the earliest known use of Pistacia resins in human mummification happened at least 600 years after this luxury beef rib mummy was prepared. If Pistacia was indeed used to preserve the ribs at this early date, rather than just to flavor them, it suggests that "mummification may have been more sophisticated in these early times than we originally thought," Evershed says. Still, he is wary of drawing any definitive conclusions until more human, animal and meat mummies from high-status burials can be studied.

Stephen Buckley, an analytical chemist of the University of York in England, agrees. "I think this paper is a step in the right direction, but it's a small step," he says.

When it comes to ancient Egyptian mummification, it's hard to tell which practices were common when and how they may have changed over time. For example, Buckley reports that his own unpublished work suggests that around the time the beef rib mummy was made, Pistacia resin was used in mummification much more frequently than Evershed's team assumes.

In any case, what about the taste? Unfortunately, even the best mummification techniques have their limits. "From the encounters I've had with mummies, they smell pretty disgusting," Evershed says. "I think you'd be extremely unwise to try to eat them."

This is adapted from ScienceNOW, the online daily news service of the journal Science. http://news.sciencemag.org

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