Earliest surviving mummification manual discovered

There are numerous sources for the funerary rituals and spells Egyptians used to aid the dead over the threshold of the afterlife. They were written on papyrus and linen mummy wrappings, painted on coffins and carved on walls, texts now known collectively as the Book of the Dead. Mummification was an essential part of Egyptian funerary practice, the means by which the body would be able to rejoin the soul in the afterlife, but very little written material detailing the process has survived. Egyptologists believe this was deliberate, that the sacred art was transmitted orally from embalmer to embalmer.

Only two papyri dedicated to mummification were previously known, but now a third has been found in an unexpected context: in the middle of a medical text on herbal treatments and swellings of the skin. Written back and front over 20 feet in length, it is second longest surviving Egyptian medical papyrus. The Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg (so named between it is in two parts, one in the collection of the Louvre Museum and the other University of Copenhagen’s Papyrus Carlsberg Collection) dates to around 1450 B.C., which makes it the oldest of the three mummification papyri by a thousand years. It is the earliest known Egyptian herbal treatise. The section on mummification covers details the other two never address.

University of Copenhagen Egyptologist Sofie Schiødt has translated and interpreted the papyrus for her doctoral dissertation.

“One of the exciting new pieces of information the text provides us with concerns the procedure for embalming the dead person’s face. We get a list of ingredients for a remedy consisting largely of plant-based aromatic substances and binders that are cooked into a liquid, with which the embalmers coat a piece of red linen. The red linen is then applied to the dead person’s face in order to encase it in a protective cocoon of fragrant and anti-bacterial matter. This process was repeated at four-day intervals.”

Illustration of face embalming. Photo by Ida Christensen, University of Copenhagen.Although this procedure has not been identified before, Egyptologists have previously examined several mummies from the same period as this manual whose faces were covered in cloth and resin. […]

The importance of the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg manual in reconstructing the embalming process lies in its specification of the process being divided into intervals of four, with the embalmers actively working on the mummy every four days.

“A ritual procession of the mummy marked these days, celebrating the progress of restoring the deceased’s corporeal integrity, amounting to 17 processions over the course of the embalming period. In between the four-day intervals, the body was covered with cloth and overlaid with straw infused with aromatics to keep away insects and scavengers,” Sofie Schiødt says.

The papyrus is scheduled to be published in 2022.

Four-wheeled ceremonial chariot found at Pompeii

Today’s Pompeii news is even showier than yesterday’s. A uniquely well-preserved ceremonial carriage has been discovered in a grand villa in the Pompeiian suburb of Civita Giuliana. The chariot is complete with four iron wheels, bronze and tin relief panels, carbonized wood elements and even the imprint of organic fittings like ropes and floral decorations.

This is an exceptional discovery, not only because it adds an additional element to the history of this dwelling and the story of the last moments in the lives of those who lived in it, as well as more generally to our understanding of the ancient world, but above all because it represents a unique find – which has no parallel in Italy thus far – in an excellent state of preservation.

Transport vehicles, including chariots, have been found at Pompeii, but this was something else entirely. Known as a pilentum, ancient sources including Livy and Virgil refer these carriages being used for special occasions (parades, festivals, sacred rites) only. The rear of the chariot is decorated with medallions that depicts satyrs, nymphs and erotes. Livy and Virgil mention their use by matrons and priestesses, so it’s possible it was used in rituals associated with womanhood, carrying a bride on her wedding day, for example.

Modern excavation of the luxury villa half a mile northwest of the city walls began in 2017 after looting tunnels were discovered. The dig has been exceptionally productive, unearthing the remains of the first complete horse ever found at Pompeii, a carbonized wood bed and two people, all of which were cast in plaster. The carriage was found in the portico facing the stables where the horse was discovered.

The portico is an exceptional find in its own right. It had two levels opening onto a courtyard. The ceiling collapsed during the eruption of Vesuvius, but its wooden beams were carbonized and preserved by the intense heat, leaving the interlaced network of timbers on the ground in their original positions. A door on the southern end of the room which opened from the portico to the stable was also preserved. Analysis of the ceiling wood found it was English oak, widely used in the Roman era for structural purposes. The door was found to be beechwood.

The ceiling timbers were removed for conservation and it was in the layers beneath that the iron chariot emerged. Archaeologists first encountered the curved iron top edge of the carriage. Its large size and shape telegraphed that the object was a significant one, and as the excavation proceeded at a cautiously slow pace over the course of weeks, its unprecedented importance was revealed. Its survival is nothing short of miracle. The chariot managed to avoid getting obliterated by the collapse of the ceiling in 79 A.D. AND the tunnels dug by the looters were within a hair’s breadth of hitting it. They would have torn it apart like locusts had they known.

From the moment it was identified, the excavation of the chariot has proved to be particularly complex due to the fragility of the materials involved and the difficult working conditions; as a result, it was necessary to proceed by means of a micro-excavation conducted by the restorers of the Park, who are specialised in the treatment of wood and metals. At the same time, whenever a void was discovered, plaster was poured in as part of an attempt to preserve the imprint of the organic material that was no longer present. Consequently, it has been possible to preserve the shaft and platform of the chariot, as well as the imprints of ropes, thus revealing the chariot in all of its complexity. […]

With the in situ micro-excavation completed, the various elements of the chariot have been transported to the laboratory of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, where the restorers are working to complete the removal of volcanic material which still engulfs certain metal elements, and to begin the lengthy restoration and reconstruction of the chariot.

Pompeii fresco restored to glory

An elaborate fresco adorning a garden wall in the House of the Ceii has been restored to splendor after more than a century of deterioration caused by the elements, poor maintenance and faulty restoration techniques.

Excavated between May 1913 and August 1914, the House of the Ceii is notable as a rare surviving example of a home from the later Samnite era (2nd century B.C.). Its fine paintings were more recent additions, commissioned in the decades before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. An electoral slogan painted on the façade promotes the campaign of Lucius Ceius Secundus for duovir (one of two judicial magistrates), and archaeologists believe he was the owner of the home when the frescoes were added to its small viridarium (pleasure garden).

On the east and west walls are Nilotic scenes — pygmies, crocodiles, hippopotami and buildings in Egyptian style on the banks of the Nile — and individual figures — one carrying a basin, one walking with a stick — in natural landscapes. The north wall, the large focal wall of the viridarium, was painted with an vivid menagerie of wild animals. Against a rocky lake landscape, animals red in tooth and claw hunt each other down: a lion chases a bull, dogs attack a boar witnessed by a second boar while two deer flee ahead of them, a leopard attacks two rams. All around this animal combat are trompe l’oeil architectural elements painted to look like marble reliefs, urns, fountains, statues with garlands forming the border. Along the bottom of all three painted walls are a profusion of greenery and birds against a deep red background.

This is a fine example of the Fourth Pompeiian Style which was the dernier cri in the decade before the eruption. It featured large-scale landscapes, still lives and scenes from mythology framed in faux architectural elements with ornamental motifs. Similar scenes of wild hunts have been found in the amphitheater of Pompeii and the homes of the very wealthy. Its presence in the House of Ceii may have been an attempt to recreate the kind of wildlife parks created by Eastern kings and adopted as status symbols by the richest Romans.

The lower parts of the frescoes were particularly susceptible to damage from the capillary effect drawing water up from the ground. The moisture leaves salt deposits on the surface (efflorescence) which causes severe damage to the paint layer. Over the past year, conservators have undertaken a program of consolidation to keep as much of the paint layer attached to the backing as possible, and cleaned the deposits by both chemical and mechanical means. The most stubborn efflorescence could only be removed with a laser.

Ancient Chinese face cream made of beef fat, stalactites

Analysis of a jar of face cream unearthed in an ancient tomb in northern China has revealed it was made of beef fat and minerals derived from white stalactites in limestone caves. Found in the tomb of a nobleman from the Spring and Autumn Period (ca. 771-476 B.C.), this face cream is the earliest evidence of use of cosmetics by a Chinese man.

The cream was inside a small bronze jar discovered in tomb M49 at the Liujiawa archaeological site, capital of the Zhou Dynasty vassal state of Rui (700-640 B.C.). The tomb’s funerary furnishings included a set of bronze weapons identifying the deceased as a man of aristocratic class, and the ornately decorated bronze jar which was placed in the outer coffin near the man’s head. Just over two inches high, the vessel is u-shaped with two handles and a lid. The lid was still snugly sealed.

These types of vessels have been found before in tombs from the Early Spring and Autumn period, and archaeologists have hypothesized that they held cosmetics, but it could not be confirmed scientifically. The discovery of a sealed jar made it possible to analyze the contents to determine whether they were indeed cosmetics.

When the jar was opened in laboratory conditions, it was found to contain lumps of a yellowish-white material. The substance was analyzed with a variety of technologies including mass spectrometry, X-Ray diffraction, isotope analysis, acid extraction and scanning electron microscopy. The results revealed that the white particles consist primarily of monohydrocalcite (MHC) while the yellowish element was a lipid. MHC is mostly found in lake deposits or caves, and the isotope values pointed to the latter. Analysis of the fatty acids in the lipid sample identified it as ruminant animal fat, likely bovine.

MHC in a soft mud form known as cave moonmilk was harvested from limestone caves, perhaps as part of Taoist ritual. Caves held symbolic significance as the womb metaphors and stalactites were believed to have been formed from the liquid souls of hills. The glossy whiteness of the best stalactites were compared to the most precious jade and valued for their medical as well as cosmetic properties. Stalactites and moonmilk were collected, ground, dried and processed to create the most pure powders.

Cosmetic manufacturing had already become a specialized industry for the supply to the nobility in the early stage of the Spring and Autumn Period, and the involvement of a sorcery/alchemy‐related ingredient (e.g., the collection of cave minerals) enriched the aestheticism with mystic elements. In fact, historical records from the pre‐Qin period described face whitening through cosmetic use as a source of cultural pride. The whitened face with unnatural complexions could conceal defects on the skin and mask a layer of luminous homogeneity, enhancing the facial bilateral symmetry in contrast with the black eyelashes and black hair. Also, the whitened face eliminates wrinkles, creating an identity of youthfulness and beauty with a manner of majestic which is appealing to the aristocratic class.

Another interesting point lies in the male’s use of white cosmetics, which has scarcely been described since the Spring and Autumn Period (mostly female figures were described). In accord with our findings, historical records also suggested the pre‐Qin period (pre‐221 bce) was an emerging era for white makeup cosmetics advocating facial attractiveness with white luminance. This aesthetic taste of the aristocratic class involving cave minerals reflected the increasing awareness of aesthetics and metaphysics in the Spring and Autumn Period that had influenced the subsequent aesthetic taste in history. […]

Residue analysis verifies the earliest cosmetic cream product in China: not only has it pushed back the historical description for cosmetic use of ruminant adipose fat (most likely cattle fat) to the early phase of the first millennium bce, but also it highlighted the special MHC use resulting from the exploitation of cave minerals along with the Taoist School Cave Cultus which adds mystic elements to the aestheticism of cosmetics. The special ingredients and the popularization of similar bronze vessels disclosed the rise of an incipient cosmetics industry in the Spring and Autumn Period which still acts as an important part of our daily life. This archaeological residue study showed that apart from being a culinary ingredient, animal products were also explored in the handcraft industry of cosmetics‐making. It has also deepened our knowledge of natural mineral usage, revealing a special aesthetic taste in the early Iron Age of ancient China and has contributed to the worldwide study of cosmetics development.

Domus with marble “carpet” found in Nîmes

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a richly decorated Roman villa from the imperial era in Nîmes, southern France. The find site is slated for development, and a preliminary survey indicated the presence of Roman remains. The subsequent excavation unearthed parts of two Roman villas from the 1st-2nd century, and while the boundaries of the dig were limited to the area of the future apartment building, almost the entire reception room of one domus was revealed.

The room is richly appointed. One section of the floor is decorated with hexagonal tiles laid in a honeycomb pattern. At one end is a square mosaic “carpet” in the opus sectile style. An array of different multicolored marbles from all over the Empire were cut into shapes and inlaid in a checkerboard pattern.

In an extremely rare find, the painted plaster coating decorating two walls of the room had collapsed inwards onto the floor. The back of the plaster was scored in chevron shapes to aid in adhesion, and trace materials stuck to the back indicate it was applied to earthen walls. The face of the plaster layer is frescoed in large panels of red with black inter panels.

Neighboring spaces underscore the luxurious features of the domus. Four pilae stacks (stacks of square tile used to raise the floor to allow heated air to circulate underneath it) are the telltale remnants of a private bath. One room’s concrete floor is decorated with marble cabochons inset in a grid pattern. In the courtyard are the remains of a semicircular fountain basin originally covered with prized white Carrara marble.

Settled since the Bronze Age, the Roman city Nîmes was founded in the 1st century B.C. as Colonia Nemausus, a colony for retired veterans of Julius Caesar’s Egyptian campaigns named after the principle deity of the local Volcae Arecomici people. The domus was found 300 or so feet from the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple dedicated to August Caesar’s grandsons Gaius and Lucius in the first years of the first century that is so intact and so beautifully restored it looks like a replica.

Located in the heart of historic Nîmes, the remains of the villas have been much damaged and interfered with by subsequent construction. Even so, archaeologists hope studying the surviving structural and decorative elements will shed new light on the buildings and their organization in the block of the Roman city.