Mummies hold the key to reconstructing the ancient Mediterranean’s climate.

Swiss researchers are using tiny wooden artifacts hung on mummified remains to recreate the climate of the ancient world.

The Earth’s climate has fluctuated naturally over time. These fluctuations would have been sufficient to make or break empires, even though they were insignificant in comparison to the current crisis. They would have played a part in both the expansion and decline of the Roman Empire, according to recent studies. Scientists in Basel and Geneva are working to recreate the climate of Roman-ruled ancient Egypt in an effort to comprehend the impact it had on the history of a region or empire. The International Journal of Wood Culture has published their work.

Amazing “Rosetta stones” in the form of wooden labels affixed to mummies from the Roman era provide assistance to the team in their tasks. Families would label the body with the deceased person’s name, their parents’ names, and occasionally a brief religious message before sending it to the embalmer. The labels served as a means of identifying the deceased, who would become unrecognizable once bandaged, and ensuring that embalmers did not mix up bodies.

“That is why mummy labels are perfect for our needs. There are hundreds of them in museums throughout the world, and they’re constructed from a variety of tree species, including pine, cypress, cedar, and juniper.”

François Blondel, an archaeologist at the University of Geneva.

The museums are a wealth of knowledge.
Beyond simply identifying Pkyris, the deceased son of Besis and Senpnouth, or the deceased Tsenpetese, daughter of Panahib, the wooden labels reveal more details. Because they have growth rings, like all wooden artifacts, they also provide invaluable information about the climate at the time. One year is symbolized by each ring. Due to the tree’s faster growth, good years are identified by broad rings. Thicker rings may indicate years of drought.

In order to recreate the climate of the time, a few pieces of wood are obviously insufficient. At the very least, multiple dozen samples would need to show the same pattern in order to be valid. The conclusions are more trustworthy when there are more overlaps. The growth rings of various tree species with various responses to climatic conditions, such as drought or extreme heat, must also be compared in order to recreate the subtleties of climate fluctuation.

Because of this, says François Blondel, an archaeologist at the University of Geneva, “mummy labels are perfect for our purposes.”. They are made from a variety of different tree species, including pine, cypress, cedar, and juniper, and thousands of them can be found in museums around the world.

Two mummy labels are compared. The label to the left (HO163) is well-finished, with a flattened inscribed surface, sharp ends, and an outline with a chamfer (BNU Strasbourg). There are saw marks and a knot on the right label, F1949/4.2. The left end is not straight, and the corner cuts differ. Credit: International Journal of Wood Culture (2023). DOI: 10.1163-27723194-bja10017

Climate events to date
Over 300 labels’ ring sequences were examined in the study by the researcher. The overlaps, or instances where ring sequences coincide, were next noted by him.

The areas where the trees were harvested, such as the eastern Mediterranean, modern-day Lebanon, the Greek islands, or the mouth of the Nile, can be roughly approximated by these overlaps. The precise dates are still unknown, according to François Blondel, but there have been a few prosperous years here and an unfortunate string of droughts there. “The rings and the events they record have not yet been given a specific date.”.

Locating these events in history will therefore be the next step. Hopefully, the researchers will come across a specimen that can be dated. They should then be able to determine the precise date by looking for overlaps with other labels from the same tree species and area. If not, radiocarbon dating will be required.

It is possible to statistically reduce dating uncertainty—to practically zero in the best-case scenario—by combining multiple samples of wood taken along the rings of the same specimen. The researchers still need to locate the ideal samples and, most importantly, secure permission from the museums to conduct invasive radiocarbon analysis.

Sabine Huebner, the project manager for the SNSF project that is attempting to recreate the climate of Roman Egypt, explains that the search has only just begun. At the University of Basel, Huebner, a professor of ancient history, oversees the efforts of historians, archaeologists, and climatologists. According to her, “mummy labels are just a proxy tool that we are using to reconstruct the climate of Roman Egypt, the Roman Empire’s breadbasket, and understand how climate fluctuations influenced changes in society, government, and the economy.”.

It is the ideal illustration of how urgent issues raised by ancient history can affect the modern world.

More information: François Blondel et al, Mummy Labels: A Witness to the Use and Processing of Wood in Roman Egypt, International Journal of Wood Culture (2023). DOI: 10.1163/27723194-bja10017

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