Mummy in British Museum / Wikimedia Commons
By Dr. Kathryn Meyers Emery
Anthropologist – Mortuary Archaeology
I’ve been reading a lot of interesting food non-fiction books in my sparse free time as a way to relax after long days of dissertation preparation and article writing. I’ve recently finished reading The Third Plate by Dan Barber and The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky. I like these types of books because they are so completely different from what I spend my days reading and writing- they offer a nice break. Last night, however, I had my first overlap between these food books and my passion for mortuary archaeology. I’m reading another Kurlansky book called Salt, which shares the story and importance of salt use throughout human history. Since Kurlansky’s books focus primarily on dietary habits and cultural change, I was not expecting a number of quirky insights into the history of body preservation and burial practices. His work got me thinking… how important is salt to burial practices? Today, we’re going to be looking at a few examples of salt’s usage in preserving and preparing individuals for burial.
Skull and cross bones in salt, via Pixabay
Probably the most well known use of salt in body preparation for burial, is its role in Ancient Egyptian mummification. The Ancient Egyptians were specifically using a form of salt known as natron, a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, with small amounts of sodium chloride and sodium sulfate. It was called natron because it came from the Natron Valley lakes- the salt mixture could simply be scraped off the bottom of the lake beds during the dry season. Natron had many purposes in Ancient Egypt, but the one most relevant to us is its use in the mummification process. The salt would act as a drying agent- absorbing the water within the body and creating an environment that was hostile to bacteria by raising the pH of the body. To do this, after the internal organs were removed from the deceased, their body cavities would be filled with natron, and they would be covered in head to toe with natron. After forty days, the body would be removed from its salty encasement, and at this point would be dry enough to preserve the body for eternity and allow for the next stages of the mummification process, including the wrapping of the body and placement within the various caskets.
More recently, in 2015, Papageorgopoulou et al. tested whether natron would actually be able to preserve a body. They took a leg from a deceased donor, and placed it within natron. At specific time intervals, they examined the leg using macroscopic and radiological techniques, and found that it took 208 days for the leg to be fully mummified.
Progress of the mummification of the modern leg, by Papageorgopoulou et al. 2015
While it did take longer than Ancient Egyptian records state it did (a time discrepancy that they believe was due to the humid environment of the testing lab versus the arid environment of Egypt), the natron was able to effectively remove the water from the tissue in the leg, which prevented the growth of bacteria and fungi that would normally destroy it.
Salt Men of Iran, naturally salt preserved mummy, via Atlas Obscura
The process of mummification required salt as a way to dry the body and arrest the decomposition process- but salt has also stopped decay in bodies that weren’t mummified on purpose. In 1993, miners working in the Chehrabad Salt Mine in Iran discovered the body of a man with long hair, a bears, leather boots, brightly colored woolen clothing, and some artifacts. In 2004, another salt miner at the same location found the remains of a second man. This led to more formal excavations of the salt mines in 2005 through 2007 by archaeologists from Iran, Germany, England and Switzerland. They discovered two more corpses- a woman and a teenager. The miners likely died during collapses in the salt tunnels, and radiocarbon dating of their artifacts indicates they range in dates from 500 BCE to 400 CE. Results from the detailed anatomical analysis of the salt mummies by Aali et al. (2012) has led to a revision of the total number of ‘saltmen’ to eight individuals, and isotopic analysis showed that not all individuals were native to Iran. Aali et al. (2012) indicate that they are undertaking a massive interdisciplinary study of these salt people who were naturally preserved in the mines after getting trapped within the tunnels. Their hair and clothing is perfectly preserved, and they can even analyze the contents of their stomachs to see what their last meal was. This is a fascinating example of natural mummification using salt.
Salt Related Rituals
Salt isn’t just for mummification, it has also been used in a number of funerary rituals. In historic Great Britain and the United States, salt used to play an important role in the funeral, and these practices continued into the 19th century. In historic Scotland, salt would be sprinkled onto the stomach or chest of the corpse or enclosed in the coffin to relieve the sins of the dead. In Southern Wales, salt and bread would be placed on the corpse, and these foods would take in the sins of the deceased. An individual in the village would then have to eat these sins in order for the deceased to enter heaven- though the sin-eaters themselves would then carry those sins with them. In American folklore, salt would be left in the room in which an individual had died in order to purge the sins and clean the air (MacGregor and de Wardener 1998). If you’re a fan of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, then you may have read about this practice in one of her books:
“Steeling myself, I leaned over and laid my own hand gently on the shroud. An earthenware saucer, holding a piece of bread and a heap of salt, sat on the dead woman’s chest and a small wooden bowl filled with dark liquid – wine?- sat beside her on the table. What with the good beeswax candle, the salt, and thebean-treim, it looked as though Hiram Crombie was trying to do right by his late mother-in-law – though I wouldn’t put it past him to thriftily reuse the salt after the funeral.” (Diana Gabaldon, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Chapter 39).
You can also find a fantastic homemade salt recipe by the Outlander Kitchen inspired by this part of the book, and create your own custom sin-eater salt. How fantastically morbid and awesome is that!
So there you have it… some wonderful salt trivia for your next dinner party. Enjoy!
Papageorgopoulou C, Shved N, Wanek J, & Rühli FJ (2015). Modeling ancient Egyptian mummification on fresh human tissue: macroscopic and histological aspects. Anatomical record (Hoboken, N.J. : 2007), 298 (6), 974-87 PMID: 25998632
Aali et al. 2012. Ancient Salt Mining and Salt Men. Antiquity. http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/aali333/
MacGregor and de Wardener 1998. Salt, Diet and Health. Cambridge: University Press.