This Important Preservative Worked to Preserve the Mummy

Natron was an important preservative the Egyptians used in their embalming process. In The Genesis of Science (2010), Stephen Bertman says Egyptologists use the term natron to refer to a variety of chemical compounds; specifically, sodium chloride (table salt), sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and sodium sulfate.

Mummy Preservation

Natron worked to preserve the mummy in three ways:

  1. Dried the moisture in the flesh thereby inhibiting the growth of bacteria
  2. Degreased -- removed moisture-filled fat cells
  3. Served as a microbial disinfectant.

The Egyptians mummified their wealthy dead in various ways. Typically, they removed and preserved internal organs and embalmed certain ones such as the lungs and intestines and then put them into decorated jars that symbolized protection by the Gods. The body was then preserved with natron while the heart was typically left untouched and inside of the body. The brain was often physically discarded. 

Natron was stripped from the body's skin after 40 days and the cavities were infused with items such as linen, herbs, sand and sawdust. The bandages, made out of linen, along with the skin were then coated with resin before the body was wrapped. This entire process took about two and a half months for those that could afford to embalm.

How It Was Harvested

Classically, natron was gathered from a salt mixture derived out of dry lake beds in ancient Egypt and was used as a cleansing product for personal use. The consistency of natron removes oil and grease and was often used as a type of soap when mixed with oil. Natron can be made using half an apple, a stick and a mix of solution that includes salt, sodium carbonate and baking soda. Mixing these together in a sealed bag will get you a form of natron.

Natron can be found in Africa in places such as Lake Magadi, Kenya, Lake Natron and Tanzania and is generally known as a historical salt. The mineral is typically found along with gypsum and calcite naturally.

Characteristics and Use

It appears to be a pure, white color but also appears as gray or yellow in some circumstances. Aside from mummification and soap, natron has been used as a mouthwash and helped with wounds and cuts. In Egyptian culture, natron has been utilized as a product to make an Egyptian blue color for ceramics, glass-making and metals in 640 CE. Natron was also used in the production of faience.

Today, natron is not used as readily in modern-day society due to being replaced with commercial detergent items along with soda ash, which made up for its use as a soap, glass-maker and household items. Natron has decreased dramatically in use since its popularity in the 1800s.

Egyptian Etymology

The name natron comes from the term Nitron, which derives from Egypt as a synonym for sodium bicarbonate. Natron was from the 1680's French word which was derived directly from Arabic's natrun. The latter was from Greek's nitron. It is also known as the chemical sodium which is symbolized as Na.

Source: "The Technique of Egyptian Faïence," by Joseph Veach Noble;  American Journal of Archaeology; Vol. 73, No. 4 (Oct. 1969), pp. 435-439.