Alongside the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, when we think of ancient Egypt, we immediately summon an image of an eternal mummy, swathed in bandages. Initially, it was the grave goods that accompanied the mummy into the afterlife that attracted the attention of Egyptologists. Howard Carter’s remarkable discovery of King Tutankhamun’s intact tomb triggered a frenzy of Egyptomania, which has rarely abated.
Since then, archaeologists have unearthed thousands of Egyptian Mummies. Tragically, many were pulverised and used for fertilizer, burnt as fuel for steam trains or ground up for medical elixirs. Today, Egyptologists understand the insights into ancient Egypt that can be gleaned from studying mummies.
Table of Contents
Facts About Ancient Egyptian Mummies
- The first Egyptian mummies were preserved naturally due to the desiccating effect of the desert sand
- Ancient Egyptians believed the ba a part of the soul, returned each night to the body following its death, so preserving the body was essential for the soul’s survival in the afterlife
- The first X-Ray of an Egyptian mummy was in 1903
- Embalmers worked for centuries to perfect their art.
- Egypt’s New Kingdom represented the apogee of the embalming craft
- Late Period mummies show a steady decline in the embalming art
- Greco-Roman mummies employed an elaborated pattern of linen bandaging
- Members of the royal family received the most elaborate mummification ritual
- Egyptologists have discovered thousands of mummified animals
- In later periods, Egyptian embalmers often broke bones, lost body parts or even or concealed extraneous body pieces in the wrapping.
Ancient Egypt’s Changing Approach To Mummification
Early ancient Egyptians used small pits to bury their dead in the desert. The desert’s natural low humidity and arid environment quickly desiccated the buried bodies, creating a natural state of mummification.
These early graves were shallow rectangles or ovals and date to the Badarian Period (c. 5000 BCE). Later, as ancient Egyptians began burying their dead in coffins or sarcophaguses to protect them from the depredations of desert scavengers, they realised bodies buried in coffins decayed when they were not exposed to the desert’s dry, hot sand.
Ancient Egyptians believed the ba a part of a person’s soul, returned nightly to the body following its death. Preserving the deceased’s body was thus essential for the soul’s survival in the afterlife. From there, the ancient Egyptians evolved a process for preserving bodies over many centuries, ensuring they remained lifelike.
The royal mummies of several Middle Kingdom queens have survived the depredations of time. These queens from the 11th Dynasty were embalmed with their organs. Marks on their skin made by their jewellery is evidence their bodies had not been ritually embalmed when they were wrapped.
Egypt’s New Kingdom represented the apogee of the Egyptian embalming tradecraft. Members of the royal family were interred with their arms crossed over their chests. In the 21st Dynasty, looting of royal tombs by tomb raiders was commonplace. Mummies were unwrapped in the search for valuable amulets and jewellery. Priests re-wrapped the royal mummies and interred them in more secure caches.
The threat posed by tomb robbers forced changes in ancient Egyptian burial practices. Thieves increasingly smashed the Canopic jars holding the organs. Embalmers started embalming the organs, before wrapping them and returning them to the body.
Late Period mummies display a steady decline in the skills used in Egyptian embalming. Egyptologists have discovered mummies missing body parts. Some mummies were found to be merely disarticulated bones wrapped to mimic a mummy shape. X-rays of the Lady Teshat mummy revealed an errant skull concealed between her legs.
Mummies from the Greco-Roman period display further declines in embalming techniques. These were offset by improvements in their linen wrapping methods. Artisans weaved standardised bandages, allowing embalmers to use elaborate patterns in wrapping bodies. A popular wrapping style appears to have been a diagonal pattern producing recurring small squares.
Portrait masks were also a distinguishing feature of Greco-Roman mummies. An artist painted an image of the person while he or she was still alive on a wood mask. These portraits were framed and displayed in their homes. Egyptologists point to these death masks as being the oldest known portraiture examples. In some instances, embalmers apparently confused the portraits. An X-ray of one mummy revealed the body was female, yet a man’s portrait was interred with the mummy.
Ancient Egypt’s Embalming Artisans
After a person died, their remains were transported to the embalmers’ premises. Here three levels of service were available. For the wealthy was the best and therefore the most expensive service. Egypt’s middle classes could take advantage of a more affordable option, while the working class could probably only afford the lowest level embalming available.
Naturally, a pharaoh received the most elaborate embalming treatment producing the best-preserved bodies and elaborate burial rituals.
If a family could afford the most expensive form of embalming yet opted for a cheaper service they risked being haunted by their deceased. The belief was that the deceased would know they had been given a cheaper embalming service than they deserved. This would prevent them from peacefully journeying into the afterlife. Instead, they would return to haunt their relatives, making their lives miserable until the wrong perpetrated against the deceased had been corrected.
The Mummification Process
Burial of the deceased involved making four decisions. Firstly, the level of embalming service was selected. Next, a coffin was chosen. Thirdly came the decision on how elaborate the funerary rites performed at and following the burial were going to be and finally, how the body was to be treated during its preparation for burial.
The key ingredient in the ancient Egyptian’s mummification process was natron or divine salt. Natron is a mixture of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride and sodium sulphate. It occurs naturally in Egypt particularly in Wadi Natrun sixty-four kilometres northwest of Cairo. It was Egyptians’ preferred desiccant thanks to its de-fatting and desiccating properties. Common salt was also substituted in cheaper embalming services.
Ritual mummification started four days after the deceased’s death. The family moved the body to a location on the west bank of the Nile.
For the most expensive form of embalming, the body was laid on a table and thoroughly washed. The embalmers then removed the brain using an iron hook via the nostril. The skull was then rinsed out. Next, the abdomen was opened using a flint knife and the contents of the abdomen were removed.
Towards the beginning of Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty, embalmers began removing and preserving the major organs. These organs were deposited in four Canopic jars filled with a solution of natron. Typically these Canopic jars were carved from, alabaster or limestone and featured lids shaped in a likeness of Horus’ four sons. The sons, Duamutef, and Imsety, Qebhsenuef and Hapy stood guard over the organs and a set of jars usually featured heads of the four gods.
The empty cavity was then cleaned thoroughly and rinsed out, firstly using palm wine and then with an infusion of ground spices. After being treated, the body was filled with a mix of pure cassia, myrrh and other aromatics before being sewn up.
At this point in the process, the body was immersed in natron and covered entirely. It was then left for between forty and seventy days to dry out. Following this interval, the body was washed once more before being wrapped from head to toe in linen cut into broad strips. It could require up to 30 days to finish with the wrapping process, preparing the body for burial. The linen strips were smeared on the underside with gum.
The embalmed body was then returned to the family for internment in a wooden human shaped casket. The embalming tools were frequently buried in front of the tomb.
In 21st Dynasty burial, embalmers attempted to make the body look more natural and less desiccated. They stuffed the cheeks with linen to make the face appear fuller. Embalmers also experimented with a subcutaneous injection of a mixture of soda and fat.
This embalming process was followed for animals too. Egyptians regularly mummified thousands of sacred animals together with their pet cats, dogs, baboons, birds, gazelles and even fish. The Apis bull viewed as an incarnation of the divine was also mummified.
The Role Of Tombs In Egyptian Religious Beliefs
Tombs were not viewed as a deceased’s final resting place but as the body’s eternal home. The tomb was now where the soul left the body to journey on through the afterlife. This contributed to the belief that the body must remain intact if the soul was to successfully journey onwards.
Once freed from the constraints of its body, the soul needs to draw upon objects that had been familiar in life. Hence tombs were often elaborately painted.
To the ancient Egyptians, death was not the end but merely a transition from one form of existence to another. Thus, the body needed to be ritually prepared so the soul would recognise it upon reawakening each night in its tomb.
Reflecting On The Past
Ancient Egyptians believed that death was not the end of life. The deceased could still see and hear. If wronged, would be given leave by the gods to exact their horrible revenge upon their relatives. This social pressure emphasized treating the dead with respect and providing them with embalming and funeral rites, which befitted their status and means.
Header image courtesy: Col·lecció Eduard Toda [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons