Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry

, Volume 388, Issue 3, pp 683–689 | Cite as

Raman spectroscopy of natron: shedding light on ancient Egyptian mummification

  • Howell G. M. Edwards
  • Katherine J. Currie
  • Hassan R. H. Ali
  • Susana E. Jorge Villar
  • A. Rosalie David
  • John Denton
Original Paper

Abstract

The mummification ritual in ancient Egypt involved the evisceration of the corpse and its desiccation using natron, a naturally occurring evaporitic mineral deposit from the Wadi Natrun, Egypt. The deposit typically contains sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and impurities of chloride and sulfate as its major elemental components. It is believed that the function of the natron was to rapidly remove the water from the cadaver to prevent microbial attack associated with subsequent biological tissue degradation and putrefaction. Several specimens of natron that were recently collected from the Wadi Natrun contained coloured zones interspersed with the mineral matrix that are superficially reminiscent of extremophilic cyanobacterial colonisation found elsewhere in hot and cold deserts. Raman spectroscopy of these specimens using visible and near-infrared laser excitation has revealed not only the mineral composition of the natron, but also evidence for the presence of cyanobacterial colonies in several coloured zones observed in the mineral matrix. Key Raman biosignatures of carotenoids, scytonemin and chlorophyll have been identified.

Figure

The mummification ritual in ancient Egypt involved the evisceration of the corpse and its desiccation using natron, a naturally occurring evaporitic mineral deposit from the Wadi Natrun, Egypt. The deposit typically contains sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and impurities of chloride and sulfate as its major elemental components. It is believed that the function of the natron was to rapidly remove the water from the cadaver to prevent microbial attack associated with subsequent biological tissue degradation and putrefaction. Several specimens of natron that were recently collected from the Wadi Natrun contained coloured zones interspersed with the mineral matrix that are superficially reminiscent of extremophilic cyanobacterial colonisation found elsewhere in hot and cold deserts. Raman spectroscopy of these specimens using visible and near-infrared laser excitation has revealed not only the mineral composition of the natron, but also evidence for the presence of cyanobacterial colonies in several coloured zones observed in the mineral matrix. Key Raman biosignatures of carotenoids, scytonemin and chlorophyll have been identified.

Keywords

Raman spectroscopy Natron Mummification Cyanobacterial extremophile Biological colonisation 

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Howell G. M. Edwards
    • 1
  • Katherine J. Currie
    • 3
  • Hassan R. H. Ali
    • 1
  • Susana E. Jorge Villar
    • 2
  • A. Rosalie David
    • 3
  • John Denton
    • 3
  1. 1.Chemical and Forensic Sciences, School of Life SciencesUniversity of BradfordBradfordUK
  2. 2.Area de Geodinamica InternaFacultad de Humanidades y Educacion, Universidad de BurgosBurgosSpain
  3. 3.KNH Centre for Biomedical EgyptologyUniversity of ManchesterManchesterUK

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