An Ideal Solution? Optimising Pretreatment Methods for Artificially Mummified Ancient Egyptian Tissues

Jenefer Metcalfe, Angela Lamb, Ryan Metcalfe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although the analysis of skeletal remains dominates the study of ancient dietary stable isotopes, mummified bodies also allow short‐term diet to be studied through the analysis of soft tissues. The application of resins, waxes and oils during mummification can affect the results obtained. This study assesses a range of methods for removing such substances from mummified tissue.

An experimental mummification model following ancient Egyptian methods was created using a modern pig leg. Sub‐samples of skin, muscle and bone were removed and coated with a range of substances used in Egyptian mummification. Four methods were used to clean these samples before the measurement of the carbon and nitrogen stable isotope ratios of their gelatinised collagen content using a ThermoFinnigan Flash Elemental analyser coupled to a DeltaPlus XL isotope ratio mass spectrometer via a ConFlo III interface.

The results showed that embalming materials can significantly affect dietary stable isotope ratios, and that these substances are most effectively removed using a mixture of polar and non‐polar solvents. Results indicate that bone samples demineralised with HCl and skin samples produce more accurate results than bone samples demineralised with EDTA or muscle samples.

The choice of tissue and the preparation methods used can have a significant effect on the accuracy of stable isotope data obtained from mummified tissue, particularly when embalming materials are also present. A mixture of solvents appears to be a more effective cleaning agent than a single solvent. Demineralisation with HCl is preferable for well‐preserved bone as used in this study, but whether this is the case for more fragile, less well‐preserved bone requires further study. Skin samples produce more consistent data than muscle, but visually distinguishing between these tissues is not simple on ancient mummies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalRapid communications in mass spectrometry : RCM
Issue number8
Early online date29 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2020


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