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The Ancient Egyptian Art of Embalming the Dead

mummification embalming ancient egypt

 

The mummies we see in museums have been treated with a process, developed over a long time, in a deliberate attempt to preserve the body. The earliest mummies discovered in Egypt date to before the pharaohs, in the Predynastic period (c.5500-3100 BCE), and most have been naturally dried out by the heat of the sand in which they were placed. Some are in excellent condition, with hair, skin, and even nails preserved, and have been buried with grave goods such as pottery, indicating belief in an afterlife — even if we do not have concrete evidence of their thoughts on it — and care by their communities. Perhaps the very earliest mummies, buried simply in the desert, prompted the desire to actively preserve the body, and as religious and afterlife beliefs developed, mummification evolved alongside them. A recent find at Saqqara has uncovered what is believed to be the oldest and most intact deliberately mummified human.

 

Please note that this article contains images of human remains and details of invasive procedures.

 

Why Did the Egyptians Mummify Their Dead?

mummy of young man predynastic
Naturally mummified young adult male, c.3400 BCE, via British Museum

 

The obvious answer is that embalming preserves the body, but what can we say about this in relation to Ancient Egyptian cultural beliefs and practices? Preservation of the body was unusual in that part of the world, and it was one of the biggest differences between Ancient Egypt and its neighbors. Burial practices in Mesopotamia, for example, revolved around similar richly provisioned tombs for the elite, but there was no attempt to preserve the body in the same way. The answer lies in one of the oldest myths from Ancient Egypt.

 

pyramid texts unas
Pyramid Texts in the burial chamber of Unas, via Brooklyn Museum

 

The god Osiris was one of the most important beings in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. In the beginning, he was the first king. He was murdered by his jealous brother Seth, and the pieces of his body were scattered throughout Egypt. Osiris’ wife, Isis, gathered the pieces and bound him together, using her magic to resurrect him long enough to conceive their son, Horus. Therefore, Osiris became the symbol of life, regeneration, and rebirth — as well as the symbol of the deceased king. His white bandaged body, green or black colored skin to represent fertility and regrowth, and royal regalia mark him as the first to die, the first to be reborn, and — crucial for the development of Ancient Egyptian funerary design — the first to be mummified. Horus defeated Seth and became the symbol of the living king, reflecting the duality in being that connected all kings — divine and earthly, dead and reborn, Osiris invoked and personified:

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‘O Unas, you are not dead, you have gone alive to sit on the throne of Osiris’
– Pyramid Texts Utterance 213, c.2475BCE

 

Who Was Mummified?

book of the dead hall of judgement
Book of the Dead of Hunefer (EA 9901,3), c.1300 BCE, via British Museum

 

Not all Ancient Egyptians were mummified because it was an expensive, time-consuming process, and not everyone could afford the full procedure. There were different embalming options available, and the varying skill of embalmers, as well as aspects such as the climate, meant that results were not always good. The best materials and dedicated attention went to royalty, of course, and the upper elite, but there are many poorly preserved examples. The lowest classes of society often had to make do with the simplest of burials, and many people were not embalmed at all. Ironically, the early practice of burying bodies in the sand, with no deliberate attempts at preservation, was probably a better way of doing it.

 

Those who were embalmed could be reassured that their earthly remains would be transformed, in the tradition of Osiris, and be regenerated whole in the afterlife. Funerary beliefs and practices previously only intended for the king filtered down through society over time so that ordinary people could also achieve a state of transformation in the tomb. The New Kingdom funerary texts that we know as the Book of the Dead (‘Spells for Coming Forth by Day’ to the Ancient Egyptians) have their origins in the Pyramid Texts, having gone through changes over the centuries. The words and images associated with the king’s regeneration also became part of the standard tomb provision, with mummiform coffins, tomb paintings reflecting renewed life in the hereafter, and even the opportunity to align oneself with Osiris.

 

What Did It Actually Involve?

four sons horus stone canopic jars third intermediate period tomb
The four Sons of Horus, Third Intermediate Period (ca. 750-700 CE), via the Met Museum, New York

 

As a sacred and profound process, the art of mummification was a skill carried out discretely and the precise details were kept from most. There are few texts which refer to mummification, and those involved in the industry were trained on the job. Therefore, we rely on other evidence to explain the process. Our main textual source is the Greek historian, Herodotus (5th c. BCE), who reported on mummification in his Histories. This source is somewhat problematic as he was reporting second-hand information but, from what we now understand about mummification, his account seems to have been fairly accurate.

 

The costliest process took around seventy days and began with the extraction of the brain and other internal organs — the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines, which if left, would hasten decomposition.  These were placed into separate vessels, known as canopic jars. The heart was often left in place, as it was thought to be the seat of the person’s memories, emotions, and the record of their deeds in life. The cavities were cleaned and packed with palm wine and spices, and the body was then placed in natron (a naturally occurring salt) for the required period to fully dry out the flesh. The body was then washed and wrapped in linen strips, often with protective amulets or funerary texts on papyri placed amongst the layers, and then finished with resins, which would help to both preserve the shape and integrity of the body and inhibit bacterial growth. Sety I, king of Egypt in the 13th c. BCE is one of the best examples of the embalmers’ skill.

 

sety i
Mummy of Sety I, c.1279 BCE, via The University of Chicago Library

 

A cheaper version involved a simpler method of emptying the body cavities with a cedar oil enema, which dissolved the organs and was drained at the end of the period of natron treatment. Then the body could be either wrapped or given back to the family as it was. The most basic treatment involved only the enema.

 

Over time, some of the details seem to have changed, perhaps as a reaction to cultural or religious belief movements or as an attempt to refine the mummification process still further. For example, at times, the heart was removed, the brain left in the skull, or the internal organs treated, wrapped, and replaced in the body. However, the basic practices seem to have remained relatively unchanged.

 

What Tools and Materials Did They Use?

bronze knife embalming large
Bronze knives, used in the mummification process, c.600-200 BCE, via The Science Museum Group

 

The natron was mainly sourced from Wadi Natrun, north-west of Cairo. Spices and oils included myrrh, pine, cedar, cinnamon, and cumin. The main incision for the extraction of organs was in the side, cut with a sharp stone. Herodotus reports that the person making the first cut removed the brain with a long skewer (metal, reed, or wood), breaking up the tissue and allowing it to come out via the nose. Bronze and copper tools ensured efficient incisions and included forceps, knives, spoons, and drills. Smaller packages of linen-wrapped natron helped to pad out the shape of the body and maintain dehydration. This was done in an embalming workshop.

 

Different grades of linen were used, and wrapping a body was a skill, with some examples being beautifully intricate. When the process was completed, the leftover materials were also buried.

 

mummification materials
Cache of embalming materials, via The History Blog

 

Recent attempts to recreate the process have had mixed results, often using animal cadavers but at times human bodies which have been donated to science. However, the real success of these experiments is arguably the confirmation of the extent of Ancient Egyptian medical skills and knowledge of biology. The removal of the internal organs in all options for mummification, as well as the drying of the body, shows that they understood the impact of fluids on decomposition and that it was crucial to dehydrate as much as possible. The role of the brain in human biology was somewhat misunderstood; as the first part to be removed, it was seen as relatively unimportant. Similarly, the heart as the center of a person’s thoughts is incorrect, but its connection with life, love, health, and illness was not wrong. Proof of their medical expertise can be seen in various treatises such as the Ebers Papyrus; while the root causes of some afflictions were misidentified, treatments were generally effective and showed a holistic understanding of the body and excellent surgical skills. The antimicrobial properties of bronze and copper tools were recognized by the Ancient Egyptians and it is likely that the embalming team were medically trained, or at least had the chance to observe doctors.

 

Mummies Today

mummy louvre
Head of mummified man with elaborate wrappings, c.332-30 BCE, Louvre N 2627, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Our relationship with mummified Ancient Egyptians has gone through several phases. Egyptology as a field is generally accepted to be from the turn of the 19th century, following the expedition of Napoleon’s epigraphers and draughtsmen (published as the Description de l’Égypte), and the 1798 discovery of the Rosetta Stone and its subsequent decipherment by Jean-François Champollion in 1822.  From this point, interest spread particularly in Western Europe and the sacred nature and purpose of mummification were often overlooked in the attempt to ‘understand’ Ancient Egypt. Monuments, texts, and artifacts attracted scholars and collectors for academic debate and the chance to own and display fragments of an ancient civilization. Objects were distributed to universities, museums, and private homes, often losing their contextual significance in the process. The beauty of many artifacts and excitement around the rediscovered language meant that mummies were often seen as unimportant or as mere curiosities. Many were used in ways that we would now consider abhorrent — as fuel, pigment for artists, and even medicines.

 

The mix of academia and wealthy patrons was significant for the history of Egyptology, with many mummies being unwrapped at social events. This was a chance for society to engage with the current interest in Ancient Egypt, in a rather macabre fashion. There were exceptions, with some mummies being examined for areas like medical research, but these all inevitably resulted in the destruction of the body.

 

The macabre interest in the mummified body continued through the 19th century and found a perfect stage in the Victorian interest in spiritualism and gothic literature, and onwards past World War II. The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 was a gleam of light in the post-war world, and the survival of the young king’s body against the odds of time and looters resonated with Victorian and Edwardian society, as well as being a poignant echo of youth lost in conflict. The discovery also sparked a renewed wave of ‘Egyptomania’, with images and ideas from Ancient Egypt influencing art, fashion, architecture, and media. Our fascination with this continues, with the mummy still appearing in literature, film, theatre, and more.

 

Our complex relationship with mummies continues with renewed debate on the ethics of human remains. The Human Tissue Act (2004) governs definitions, conditions of use in research, and provides guidance on the ethical management of fragmentary and complete specimens — including mummified remains. The Museums Association’s Code of Ethics also recognizes the need to preserve the humanity and dignity of remains in storage, research, and display. A recent ‘unrolling’ (of an actor in bandages) was conducted theatrically but in a medical setting — designed to showcase the sights, sounds, and smells of the Victorian experience, but inevitably reminding us of the reality of a person under the bandages. We are fascinated by, and perhaps a little uncomfortable with mummies, seeing the faces of ancient people who have seemingly achieved the impossible — immortality, for the fortunate few.

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