When people tend to think of sodium bicarbonate today, we tend to think of their use in health supplements to help promote an effective pH balance, but it also may have made early civilisations possible.
It is rare for a single substance to define an entire culture or civilisation, particularly one with such a diverse cultural and historical heritage, but an ingredient used in wellness products today was used in nearly every aspect of ancient society.
To explain why, and to also explain why the chemical symbol for sodium is “Na” and does not start with an S, we need to explore Ancient Egyptian society, where sodium bicarbonate was associated not only with balance but with purity.
A Gift From The Riverbed
The River Nile gave Ancient Egypt life, but not just because it was the longest and most abundant source of water in Africa, but also for what rested on its river bed during the Season of the Harvest (or the dry season).
Resting on the riverbed was a substance that depending on impurities ranged in colour from white to yellow that was a mix of sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate decahydrate (better known as soda ash).
It was known as "netjeri", the Ancient Egyptian word for “pure” or even “divine”, and through several thousand years would become the word natron, which is the reason why the chemical symbol is Na.
The name came from the natron’s use in mummification ceremonies, because being both the root ingredient of salt and bicarbonate of soda, it absorbed water, dried the body and increased the pH level so that bacteria would avoid it as much as possible.
This practical benefit gave natron a spiritual significance and it would also be used as a smokeless fuel alongside castor oil for painters to draw murals in tombs without the risk of staining them. As well as this, pellets of natron were also given as offerings.
The paint itself also contained natron along with sand, crushed limestone and copper, which created a distinct shade called Egyptian blue which was associated with royalty and the pantheon of Egyptian gods.
Outside of the pyramids, however, it had a wide range of uses for the living, being used to create some of the first soaps, as well as an early tooth cleaner and mouthwash. It was even used in early antiseptic treatments.
The list of treatments that used natron was enormous and there is a natron treatment for every part of the body and almost every complaint, although given what we know now about how natron works, it was likely that it was used as much as a superstitious placebo as for any other reason.
Ultimately, a better understanding of why natron worked in the first place led to more effective ways to separate the cleansing power of soda ash from sodium bicarbonate, which made both materials more effective, but both are effective natural solutions to many hygiene and health concerns.
Regardless, natron’s effect on history is huge and can be seen in nearly every facet of the historical artefacts Ancient Egypt left behind.