Monday, 7 July 2014

The Use of Natron in Ancient Egyptian Medicine

The major constituents of natron are sodium chloride, sodium sulphate, sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. It was deposited as a mixture of evaporites in areas which had previously been flooded. Climate change was responsible for the subsequent evaporation to dryness of the mixture.
Natron played an important role in ancient Egyptian medicine. In its solid state or as a paste it would have been useful in reducing swelling due to the powerful osmotic effect of drawing out fluid. Its most extensive use was as an external application often under a bandage, for example, Ebers 557:
“Another remedy to draw pus (ryt): ‘ipshen’ (unknown), 1;natron, 1;clay (or gypsum) from the potters kiln, 1;carob, 1;terebinth resin, 1;bring flour of date (nyt net benri); make one thing and bandage with it.”
Ebers 595 also prescribes natron for drawing out pus. 
Natron is also mentioned in the Brooklyn papyrus to aid a person inflicted with a bite from a male snake:
“ Incise (teshtesh) his wound/bite with the knife treatment (djua) many times. Then you should apply a bandage to it, red natron, salt ….”
It is also prescribed for the treatment of diseases of the eyes: black eye paint, red ochre, ochre, red natron, applied to outside (sa) of both eyes (Ebers 346).
Mummies have shown a few examples of skin diseases. The Ebers papyrus has some remedies for local application which include natron. Ebers 714 discusses a remedy to renew the skin by using honey, red natron and salt. Ebers 715 recommends powdered alabaster, natron, salt and honey to be embellish the skin.
Finally natron was used in the mummification process itself. The body was immersed in natron for approximately 40 days to dry and preserve it. It is possible that dry natron was used since experiments such as that of Lucas in the 1930’s on mummifying chickens found dry natron more effective than solution in preservation.

Picture taken by me at the British Museum  
On the left is a modern sample of crystalline natron from Wadi Natron. The basket contains a linen bag of embalmers’ salt  from the third intermediate period EA 9556. The pottery jar contains embalmers’ salt from the late period.

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