Black Goo: Egyptian Funerary Ritual Residues


Kate Fulcher, Scientist, British Museum.

For those with status and resources in ancient Egypt, preparation for death could be elaborate. Coffins were built with planks of wood and then painted in bright colours, and varnished to make them glow. Bodies were mummified, wrapped in linen, and (sometimes) inserted into a cartonnage case made of layers of plaster and linen, laced up the back, and also painted and varnished. Sometimes faces and other details were gilded. The encased body was placed into the coffin …. and then a bucketful of black “goo” was thrown over the top. Not everybody got the “goo” treatment, but it occurs occasionally throughout the New Kingdom (c.1550-712 BC) and into the following period. Some people, such as Pedihorpakhered (pictured below), received only a splosh on the face, whereas others, such as Djedkhonsiufankh (pictured below), had so much “goo” poured onto them that it cemented them into their coffins.

Djedkhonsiufankh EA6662. Under the black coating, the cartonnage case is painted and gilded.

Ancient Egyptian funerals and burial practices were so secret that very little was written about them, and only a handful of depictions are known. The preparation of bodies for burial and the treatment of them during the burial process has to be inferred from the material evidence. One of the ways to investigate these practices is using scientific analysis to determine the materials used and the ways in which they were applied.

The Wellcome Trust are currently supporting a research project to examine black goo on coffins and cartonnage dating to the 22nd Dynasty (c. 945-735 BC). We use gas chromatography combined with mass spectrometry to analyse the components of the goo, which is a complex organic mixture of plant products (oil, resin), beeswax, and bitumen. Analyses are conducted in house in the labs of the Scientific Research Department at the British Museum.

Some of the questions we are trying to answer are:

  • What is the goo made from?
  • Does the goo vary between coffins, or even on one coffin?
  • Where might the ingredients come from?
  • How was the goo applied?

Close up of the solidified goo pooled in the bottom of Djedkhonsiufankh’s coffin.

Pedihorpakhered EA29578. Black goo has been sploshed on the face of the coffin.


Kate’s research is funded by The Wellcome Trust.


As conservators of organic artefacts we work on a wide variety of objects from the Museum’s archaeological, historic and contemporary collections. The types of objects we are regularly working on range therefore from basketry, bark cloths, wooden sculptures, textiles, Asian lacquered objects, paintings on canvas and wooden substrates but also human and animal remains, just to name a few.