Meat Mummies: How Ancient Egyptians Prepared Feasts For Afterlife

NPR icon by Christopher Joyce
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Andreas F. Voegelin

Meat mummies.

It's a word pairing that is, I dare say, pretty rare. Who among us has heard those two words together? What, indeed, could a "meat mummy" be?

Indiana Jones, of course, would have known the answer right away. A meat mummy is a section of animal prepared as if for eating, then bandaged and placed in a sarcophagus by ancient Egyptians. Egyptian royalty, even after death, got hungry. And royalty deserved something more than oats and tubers. Tutankhamun, who died in 1323 B.C., was buried along with 48 carved wooden cases containing joints from poultry and beef.

But here's the rub. How do you prepare meat for a trip into eternity? The human mummies were preserved with special ointments and treatments to make that journey, so maybe the same was done for the victuals.

Well, scientists in England and Egypt recently set out to see if that was indeed the case. They employed high-tech chemical detection equipment to see what kind of residues they could find on what remained of these meat mummies found in Egyptian tombs but, perhaps not surprisingly, long ignored by Egyptologists.

They discovered that ancient Egyptian "meat-packers," if you will, specially prepared meat mummies so they, too, would last as long as possible ... longer, at least, than the few hours in the Egyptian heat that meat normally lasted in those pre-refrigeration days.

The researchers found some meat mummies that were treated and dried with salt. And then they discovered that one meat mummy (beef ribs, sans jus) had apparently been rubbed with "balms" made of pistacia resin — think pistachio tree sap — as well as fat or oil. In other cases, there were chemical residues of what appeared to be beeswax.

Well ... who knew?

Might there be one more swashbuckling archaeologist movie in this? Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Meat Locker? Yummmmm.

Until the movie comes out, you can find out more from the scientific paper published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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