David Counsell
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Proving Herodotus and Diodorus?
Headspace analysis of ‘eau de mummy’ using gas chromatography mass spectrometry
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Historical accounts of the mummification process from Herodotus (5th century BC) and Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) report the use of a wide range of aromatic plant materials, including many common herbs and spices. Mummified remains consistently emit a musty odour, likely derived from residues of these materials. Using a sampling technique, novel in archaeology, the constituents of this odour were analysed using GCMS. The sample utilised was from a particularly pungent mummy from the Leicester Museum collection; Bes-en-mut, a priest in the temple of Min at Akhmim c. 700 BC. The results revealed the presence of a wide range of turpenoid and other compounds derived from a range of aromatic plants, including well known herbs and spices such as Cinnamon and Rosemary. The abundance of these compounds in nature make it difficult to identify in most cases exactly which plants were actually used in the embalming of Bes-en-mut, with one exception. The identification of juniperol, which is unique to the common juniper, Juniperus communis, confirms the use of juniper oil in the mummification process. Overall the results support the accuracy of the historical reports particularly that of Herodotus, who's authenticity has often been called into question.

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