An ancient Egyptian mummy was wrapped in an unusual mud shell

The technique may have been used to repair damage or mimic royal burial customs

ancient Egyptian mummy sarcophagus and mud shell

CT scans of an ancient Egyptian mummy (pictured, with the coffin it was inside when purchased by a collector in the 1850s) reveal that under its linen wrappings, the body is encased in a shell of mud.

K. Sowada et al/PLOS ONE 2021 (CC BY 4.0)

An unusual mud-wrapped mummy is leading archaeologists to rethink how nonroyal Egyptians preserved their dead.

CT scans of an Egyptian mummy from around 1200 B.C. reveal that the body is sheathed in a mud shell between its layers of linen wrappings. Ancient Egyptians may have used this preservation technique, never before seen in Egyptian archaeology, to repair damage to the mummified body and mimic royal burial customs, researchers report February 3 in PLOS ONE.

While the mummy’s legs are caked with mud about 2.5 centimeters thick, the mud over its face is spread as thin as 1.5 millimeters. Chemical analyses of mud flakes from around the head indicate that the mud layer is covered in a white, possibly limestone-based pigment, topped with a red mineral paint.

Leg fractures and other damage to the mummy’s body hint that the mud wrap may have been used to restore the body after it was desecrated, potentially by tomb robbers. Repairing the body would have ensured that the deceased could continue existing in the afterlife.

The mud shell may also have been a poor man’s version of the expensive resin coatings seen on royal mummies of this era, the researchers suggest (SN: 8/18/14). “Status in Egyptian society was in large part measured by proximity to the king,” says Karin Sowada, an archaeologist at Macquarie University in Sydney. So imitating royal funerary practices may have been a display of social status.

The identity and social standing of the mud-wrapped individual remains a mystery. Analyzing other nonroyal mummies from ancient Egypt may reveal how common mud shells were, who used them and why.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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