Studies of organic residues from ancient Egyptian mummies using high temperature-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry
Buckley, S.A.; Stott, A.W.; Evershed, R.P.
Analyst 124(4): 443-452
The techniques of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and sequential thermal desorption-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (TD-GC-MS) and pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (Py-GC-MS) have been utilised to characterise the constituents of tissue-derived or applied organic material from two Pharaonic Egyptian mummies with a view to identifying embalming practices/substances. The results obtained using TD-GC-MS revealed a series of monocarboxylic acids with the C16:0, C18:1 and C18:0 components dominating in both mummies. The thermal desorption products related to cholesterol, i.e., cholesta-3,5,7-triene and cholesta-3,5-diene (only in Khnum Nakht), were detected in both mummies. Khnum Nakht also contained a number of straight chain alkyl amides (C16-C18) and an alkyl nitrile (C18). Other products included the 2,5-diketopiperazine derivative (DKP) of proline-glycine (pro-gly) which was a major component (7.9%) in Khnum Nakht but only a very minor component in Horemkenesi. Py-GC-MS of samples of both specimens yielded a series of alkene/alkane doublets (Horemkenesi C6-C18, Khnum Nakht C6-C24) which dominated their chromatograms. Series of methyl ketones in the C9-C19 chain length range were also present, with C5-C7 cyclic ketones occurring in Horemkenesi only. These ketones are indicative of covalent bond cleavage, probably of polymerised acyl lipids. Nitrogenous products included nitriles (C9-C18) which were significant in both samples, and amides which were only detected in Khnum Nakht. Also present amongst the pyrolysis products were three steroidal hydrocarbons, cholest-(?)-ene, cholesta-3,5,7-triene and cholesta-3,5-diene. High temperature-GC-MS of trimethylsilylated lipid extracts yielded similar monocarboxylic acids to that obtained using TD-GC-MS, while a series of alpha, omega-dicarboxylic acids and a number of mono- and di-hydroxy carboxylic acids not seen in the thermal desorption or pyrolysis GC-MS analyses were significant constituents in both mummy samples. Overall, the use of GC-MS and sequential TD-GC-MS and Py-GC-MS has demonstrated in both mummies the presence of a complex suite of lipids and proteinaceous components whose compositions indicates extensive alteration via oxidative and hydrolytic processes during long-term interment. None of the classical embalming resins was detected but an exogenous origin for at least a proportion of these components cannot be discounted since fats, oils and gelatin have been proposed as embalming agents in mummification. The combined approach of sequential TD- and Py-GC-MS has potential for application to the characterisation of embalming materials in mummies. Most importantly these techniques virtually eliminate any destruction of the mummified bodies thereby allowing the scope of investigations of ancient Egyptian funerary practices to be significantly extended.