After the bodies of dead people were made into mummies in ancient Egypt, some were put in a decorated coffin called a sarcophagus. (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

It has long been known that the practice of making mummies of the dead in ancient Egypt was old, but only now are researchers unwrapping the mystery of just how long ago it began.

Researchers said this week that a form of mummification was being carried out in Egypt more than 6,000 years ago. They said embalming substances in cloth used to wrap bodies from the oldest-known Egyptian cemeteries showed mummy-making from as early as about 4300 B.C.

Linen used to wrap the dead bodies was soaked with the embalming agents to protect them from bacteria. The process was being used more than 1,500 years earlier than Egyptian mummification had been thought to have started.

The discovery was found by studying burial cloths retrieved from cemeteries in the 1920s and 1930s and held in Britain’s Bolton Museum.

“The ancient Egyptians believed the survival of the body after death was necessary in order to ‘live again’ in the afterlife and become immortal,” said Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist at the University of York, who led the research. “Without the preserved body, this was not possible.”

Researchers recently found that cloth used to wrap dead bodies was soaked with preserving substances that date back 6,000 years, much earlier than scientists had thought. (Reuters)

The practice of mummification reached its peak between about 1550 and 1000 B.C., during the reign of such pharaohs as Ramses II and the “boy king” Tutankhamen, better known as King Tut.

— Reuters