Why the coffins of Pharaohs are designed with this mysterious black substance from Sudan

Stephen Nartey September 05, 2022
Photo: The British Museum

One significant characteristic feature of Egyptian coffins and mummy cases is a bitumen-like substance named “black goo” covering it. For many Egyptians of high standing and royals, it is customary to cement their coffins with the black goo.

The priest of the temple of Amun at Karnak, Jedkhonsiu-ef-ankh, is one prominent person who had his coffin smeared with black goo. He was in charge of opening the doors to the shrine in the temple containing the cult image of god. He was considered the opener of the doors of heaven.

When he died, he was decorated as a mummy, wrapped in fine linen. When he was buried, his coffin was draped in the black substance.

Another Egyptian of high social standing whose coffin was decorated in black goo was Padihorpakhered, the milk bearer of Amun in the 22nd dynasty. The significance of this custom is to give the dead soul an opportunity to be reborn and continue with their good works in the afterlife.

It is believed that when someone passes on, the Egyptian culture holds it that the person assumes the form of the god Osiris, who is linked to death and rebirth. Painting their sanctuary with black goo signifies giving them the opportunity to regenerate like the god Osiris.

In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was known as the black one and is depicted with black skin in the guise of a mummy.

Dr. Kate Fulcher, a Research Assistant with the British Museum, said the painting of the coffins and mummy cases with black goo has been one of the under-researched subjects. She said in the recent past many researchers have focused on the spiritual preparations for death in ancient Egypt, but, have ignored what goes into the burial of a social elite in Egyptian culture.

According to her, they analyzed more than 100 samples of black goo from twelve coffins and mummy cases during the 22nd dynasty in the third intermediate period.

Dr. Fulcher indicated that the team found out that the black goo comprised plant oil, animal fat, tree resin, beeswax and bitumen. Bitumen is derived from plants, animals and organisms that have been buried for millions of years. Bitumen is extracted from crude oil.

Dr. Fulcher said the discoveries the researchers made from the data collected suggested that the black substance used in painting the coffins originated from Sudan.

She said the excavation conducted at the ancient town of Amara West in Sudan on a tomb dating back centuries showed that the ingredients had a correlation with the samples analyzed from the goo.

According to her, the analyses of the findings in Sudan showed that it contained oil, wax, pistacia, resin, and bitumen.

Drawing the linkage between Amara West and Egypt, she explained that the site is south of Egypt and history shows that the Pharaohs sought to control the area because of its large gold deposits.

It stands to reason that at a point in time Egypt controlled parts of Sudan and tapped into its natural resources including the ingredients used in the preparation of the black goo.  

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 6, 2022


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