Of Mummies, Pigments and Pretzels

Egyptian papyrus paintingRecords indicate that the earliest ancient Egyptians buried their dead in the desert where the heat and dryness of the sand dehydrated the bodies creating natural ‘mummies’. Later, in order to protect the bodies from wild animals, the Egyptians developed a method of preservation to ensure the bodies would remain ‘lifelike’ by using a special mineral known as natron.

Natron is hydrated sodium carbonate with the formula Na2(CO3)Ÿ10(H2O). This mineral was mined as a powdery solid from dry lakebeds near the Nile and had many practical applications in Ancient Egypt. Mummification is based on natron’s ability to absorb water and thus dry out a body. The Egyptians also preserved their meat and fish by mixing natron with salt. This alkaline combo created a hostile environment for bacteria.

In addition to its historic use for preservation, natron was very popular among Egyptian artists. The first synthetic pigment “Egyptian Blue” was concocted more than 4,500 years ago by grinding and heating a mixture of sand, copper and natron. To this day, this artificial pigment can be found on myriad forms of art from the early Egyptian dynasties until the end of the Roman period.

Recently, researchers discovered that when Egyptian blue is irradiated with visible light, exceptionally strong infrared emission is observed. This finding has enormous significance! Tina Salguero, a chemist at University of Georgia, stated that Egyptian blue could improve medical imaging since near-infrared radiation penetrates human tissues very effectively and non-invasively. Besides these possible new roles in biomedical imaging and analysis, Egyptian blue also has potential for use in telecommunications, security ink and laser technology. But why has it taken us more than 4,5000 years to discover these additional myriad applications of Egyptian blue? Well, as Tina Salguero says “this aspect of Egyptian blue’s chemistry was under our noses for millennia. The discovery wasn’t made earlier for two main reasons—nobody was looking, and now we actually have the tools to image things with nanometer dimensions.”

It is not at all surprising that the ancient Egyptians revered Egyptian blue. For them it had cosmic meaning. It symbolized the heavens, primordial floods, sky and water. In layman’s terms, blue was their meaning of life and re-birth. Thus, Egyptian blue can be found in countless artworks and paintings. The symbolism displayed in these artworks established a sense of order as well as a way to preserve their beliefs, cultures and ways of life.

Many experts claim that the ancient Egyptians were the first to underscore the importance of beauty and hygiene in their artwork. This was undoubtedly a reflection of their emphasis on maintaining a clean body and fresh breath. They achieved this by mixing natron with oil in order to create a primitive type of soap, which would soften water whilst removing dirt, oil and grease from their bodies. Following their perfumed baths, deodorants in the form of aromatic oils, carob, incense, spices, beeswax and porridge were used to mask body odour. In order to fight bad breath, their secret formula was solid natron. Chewing sodium carbonate acted as an ancient mouthwash and tooth cleanser. In addition, ancient Egyptians found ways to make honey into pills so that their breath would acquire a sweet smell.

Despite natron’s extensive historic role, the chemical has experienced a decline in use both in the home and industry due to its gradual replacement with other closely related sodium compounds such as baking soda. Nonetheless, natron continues to have a wide range of modern uses such as giving pretzels their distinctive flavour and brown colour!

Alexandra Pires-Ménard

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