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«Melanie Sapsford The use of sodium salt deposits in medical and medically associated industries in Ancient Egypt Department of Applied Science, ...»

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Cranfield University

Melanie Sapsford

The use of sodium salt deposits in medical and medically

associated industries in Ancient Egypt

Department of Applied Science, Security and Resilience


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Cranfield University

Department of Applied Science, Security and




Melanie Sapsford

The use of sodium salt deposits in medical and

medically associated industries in Ancient Egypt

Supervisor: Dr Andrew Shortland

January 2009

© Cranfield University, 2009. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

i iii i iv “For the whole body nothing is more beneficial than salt and sun” (Pliny – Natural History Book 31 Chapter 39) v v v vi Abstract The utilisation of minerals in Ancient Egyptian medicine from procurement through to use is examined here in a case study investigating the role of sodium salts. The sodium salts, salt and natron are two of the three most commonly used minerals in the Egyptian pharmacopeia. The results of the project are important to medical historians and archaeomineralogists alike in that they formulate a systematic understanding of the way in which minerals were used in medical and medically associated industries.

Key sources of salt and natron were examined and the Wadi Natrun was identified as the probable main site of natrun exploitation. A comprehensive study conducted of this area involved examining sources of a historical geographical nature and analysis of mineralogical samples gathered from fieldwork in the Wadi Natrun.

From the source of exploitation, natron and salt were sold to the Egyptians to be used in a number of everyday industries as well as for their use in medical and medically associated industries. Salt and natron were found to be used for their astringent and cleansing qualities, and are still being used in traditional medical formulations. Prescription replication showed that these substances worked effectively. Additional research into medically associated industries showed commonality between sodium salts use between all three industries investigated.

The results of this research shows that a comprehensive study of the use of minerals in medicine could be established. Primary sites of exploitation of both salt and natron were identified, and minerals from theses sites were categorised and identified. The results showed that the chemical nature of these deposits had changed in the last 2000 years. The results also demonstrate reasons why

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As an interdisciplinary piece, this work covers the fields of archaeological science, archaeomineralogy and history of medicine. It contributes to each in a variety of ways, namely through the analysis of ethnopharmacological and archaeological samples, analysis of mineralogical specimens and the establishment of a prescription database. The literature survey also forms a big portion of the originality of the project covering not only a study of the historical geography but also a comprehensive analysis of the medical, purification and mummification industries present in Egypt.

One of the major contributions of the project is the prescription database. The database was established to allow the user to search the literature on the medicinal uses of minerals. This allows researchers to either target specific minerals or illnesses or to examine the wider picture. The database is also designed to allow for the future cataloguing of more minerals used in medicine to be conducted which can be added to as new translations and texts are identified.

The literature study ranges across a number of areas. Firstly, it covers the background of medicine, mummification and purification. It is novel in the attempt to identify contemporary ethnopharmacological links with the ancient texts, in the establishment of a chemical history and in the survey of the historical geography of the Wadi Natrun. From this parallels have been drawn between the use of minerals in both modern day Egyptian and Sudanese medicines and their ancient Egyptian counterparts. The establishment of a chemical and geographical history has also allowed for a more comprehensive understanding of the way that the lakes were exploited and modified over time.

This in turn gives clues for explaining the perceived change in the mineralogy of the system. As can be identified from a cursory glance at the maps of the Wadi Natrun, a number of features have changed and it is believed that some of i ix these changes are man-made and that they have consequently impacted on the mineralogy of the system.

A number of small experiments were also conducted in the analysis of ethnopharmacological samples and an embalming jar, and also experimental replication of both mummification and prescription experiments. Perhaps the most novel experiment was the prescription replication which illustrated that replication is the best way to test the actual effect of these prescriptions. This is particularly important as in the past a large number of prescriptions have routinely been dismissed as being wholly symbolic. However, as the replication experiment shows, although a medicine can have symbolic components, there is also a chance that the medicine has an unforeseen level of efficacy.

Analysis of mineralogical samples gathered from the Wadi Natrun were analysed using X-Ray Diffraction, and their complex phases quantified using computer software (TOPAS). These showed that the mineralogies of the lakes were rich in both chloride and sulphate, but not in carbonate which was commonly believed to have been formed in this area. Geochemical modelling of the area was also conducted, showing that the mineralogy model suggested for the system was similar to the actual mineralogy present. This was not always the case however, and there was a decided difference between the mineralogy present within one of the lakes, Lake Fazda, and the software modelling. This suggests that although the chemical nature of the lakes was adept in producing carbonates, biological and other lake interactions may inhibit the production of this substance in practice.

This work contributes to the knowledge of a number of different disciplines and contains a number of new research techniques and methods.

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There are many people who have helped me throughout the process of this PhD. Firstly; Dr Andrew Shortland should be thanked for having such faith in me, and for giving me so much support over the three years I have spent at Cranfield, thank you for everything. Thanks also need to go to my secondary supervisor Dr Joanne Rowland of the University of Oxford, for giving up so much of her available free time to help me not only with my thesis, but with many aspects of Egyptology, as well as being a willing library buddy! I would also like to thank my thesis committee Professor Keith Rogers, Dr Nick Stone and Dr Mike Edwards, who have been so supportive and have aided me in so many ways in relation to this project and thesis.

Iain McKay should be thanked for his relentless searching and ability to get hold of the most obscure documents in Inter-Library Loans and for all his advice on quite a lot of issues. He is a great librarian and friend. Thanks are also given to all the technical staff of Cranfield who have helped me immeasurably, namely Adrian Mustey, Dr John Rock and Mark Carpenter.

A number of funding bodies should be thanked for all their support, including EPSRC who funded my full three years of study, as without their support the project could not have been started. I gratefully received a number of very generous bursaries and travel grants over the last three years from a number of sources. I have been awarded the Messel Bursary from the Society of Chemical Industry, a postgraduate student bursary from the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a travel grant from the Thomas Wiedemann Memorial Fund, a number of travel grants from the Cranfield Students Association, a postgraduate student bursary from the Classics Association, a travel grant from the Butler/Eyles Fund, and finally a travel grant from English Heritage. They should all be thanked because they enabled me to attend a x xi number of conferences that it would have been impossible to attend without their financial support.

I need to thank a number of institutions who helped me with samples and some aspects of analysis. I would like to thank Bolton Museum, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum of Belgium for their aid in collecting samples. I would like to thank Dr Nick Walsh of Royal Holloway and Dr Marc Walton of the Getty Institute for their ICP analysis of a number of samples. Janine Bourriau of the University of Cambridge should also be thanked for her aid with ceramic identification, in the investigation of the Bolton embalming jar. I would also like to thank Dr Stephen Quirke, for his help in helping me understand the reason behind a number of translations in relation to the use of natron in gynaecological problems. Tom Hardwick should be thanked for allowing me access to the collection, and specifically the embalming pot of the Bolton Museum. Sue Giles of the Bristol Museum should also be thanked for her help in researching the nature of race in ancient Egypt.

My heartfelt thanks go to Sophie Beckett, who has been by my side for the last three years, and who has helped me and let me share her lab even though I wasn’t the neatest of people. Thank you for everything!

I would like to thank a number of members of the “chemistry department”, specifically Jon Rock and Anjum Agha, as well as thank all the DMMS/DMAS/DASSR students that have been part of my life at Cranfield over the last three years. Especially Chris Hargreaves who has spent many times on the phone telling me to just turn the “damn thing” on and off again.

Finally I would like to thank all those members of the Final Year PhD thesis group, you know who you are, and specifically Stephanie Bloomer who has read countless drafts of my thesis and given me constructive criticism on every one.

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There are many people who helped me with this work, and I have gratefully acknowledged them. However there are a few who deserve special recognition for the help that they gave me even before this PhD was started.

Firstly my love and thanks to my fiancée Pete Geer, who has followed me round the country on my career, which finally led us to the delights of Swindon! You’re my best friend and I could never ask for anything more.

I would also like to thank my parents who have supported me through out my education, giving me the best that was available to us. I would also like to thank my mam’s nagging to get on and do work, and would just like to say, “Don’t worry, it is all finished now!” I love them all, and the rest of my family, and my soon to be family. Thanks for putting up with me throughout all the stresses and joys of the last three years!


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Contribution to Knowledge




List of Tables

List of Figures


Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 Ancient Egypt

1.2 Chapter Summaries

Chapter 2: Analytical Techniques

2.1 X-Ray Diffraction

2.2 Thermogravimetric Analysis

2.3 Data Analysis

Chapter 3: Medicine

3.1 The Iconography of the Egyptians

3.2 Palaeopathology of the Egyptians

3.3 Documentary sources and the Medical Papyri

3.4 Doctors

3.5 Pharmacy

3.6 Prescription database

3.7 Salt

3.8 Natron

3.9 Other minerals

3.10 Experimental Section

3.11 Chapter Summary and Conclusion

Chapter 4: Associated Industries

4.1 Purification and Hygiene

4.2: Mummification

4.3 Experimental Section

4.4 Conclusion

x xv Chapter 5: Evaporite Mineralogy

5.1 Non-marine evaporitic deposits

5.2 Chemistry of Salt

5.3 Chemistry of Sodium Carbonate Minerals

5.4 Chemistry of Burkeite

5.5 Chemistry of Thenardite

5.6 Other Deposits

5.7 Conclusion

Chapter 6: Wadi Natrun

6.1 Mineralogy of the lakes

6.2 Historical Survey

6.3 Analytical Work

6.4 Discussion

6.5 Conclusion

Chapter 7: Discussion and Conclusion

7.1 Discussion

7.2 Conclusion


Index to Appendices

Appendix A: Summary

Appendix B: Summary

Appendix C: Summary

Appendix A

British Museum Samples

Bolton Museum Embalming Pot

Lake Khadra

Lake Beida

Lake Zugm

Lake Hamra

Lake Fazda

Appendix B

x xvi List of Tables Table 1: Table showing the different time periods of Egypt's ancient history (based on (Baines and Malek 1984, 36-37))

Table 2: Table showing the different methods used to analyse a variety of samples

Table 3: Table showing the different medical papyri examined, their current location and translations examined for this study

Table 4: Table showing the different medical papyri that contain reference to a text, the number of different minerals that are referenced within said text and additional information such as any declarations of working ability, special instructions for application or any associated incantations........ 57 Table 5: Table showing the number of spells in relation to minerals................ 59 Table 6: Table showing the different types of administration method present in the papyri (in relation to minerals) and the percentage they represent as a whole

Table 7: Table generated from the prescription database showing the different types of mineral present within the medical texts

Table 8: Table showing the use of salt

Table 9: Table showing the use of natron in the medical papyri

Table 10: Table showing the use of ochre in the medical papyri

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