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The ancient Egyptians developed a sophisticated method to preserve a dead body for the afterlife: mummification. First, the internal organs were removed and all moisture from the body was eliminated. Next, the body was wrapped with long strips of linen, and then covered with a large linen cloth. Follow the steps of the mummification process in this short animation about the Getty Museum's Romano-Egyptian mummy Herakleides.
Egyptian Mummification – Mummification Process
Learn how to make a mummy, along with information on Egyptian canopic jars, and the Egyptian afterlife.
Early Egyptians had a short life span and many died before the age of thirty. The afterlife played a key figure in their survival into the next world. They believed they needed both the ka, which was a spirit double, and the ha, which was considered to be a person’s life force, in order to continue existence.
Egyptian Canopic Jars
It took approximately seventy days to prepare a mummy. One of the early steps was to remove certain organs, embalm them, and place them in what is known as canopic jars. These organs included the liver, lungs, intestines, and stomach. The early Egyptians believed that the heart would be judged before entering what was referred to as the Next World. Therefore, the heart remained with the body.
Information About Mummies
The next step in the process of mummification was to dry the body out of all fluids. This was done with a preservative known as natron, which is a type of salt. This part of the procedure lasted from thirty five to forty days. In order to bring the body back to a normal looking state, it was stuffed with materials which had been soaked in oils and resins.
Proper wrapping was an intricate part of mummification. The ancient Egyptians were so skilled in this process that mummies discovered in recent times have been found to be very well preserved. The wrapping procedure consisted of wrapping linen in layers with jewels and amulets between the layers.
A popular amulet to be included was a scarab beetle. This was for guarding the soul in the afterlife and preparing it for resurrection. It was also to protect the mummy from any type of sorcery. After each layer of wrappings was placed, it was rubbed with perfume, oils, and resin.
Once the wrapping of the mummy was completed, a mask was placed over the face. It was now ready to be placed in a coffin and buried. Coffins were often painted and extravagantly decorated. The journey into the next life was very important to the ancient Egyptians as they believed their new life would be similar to the lifetime they spent on earth, only better.
With proper embalming and wrapping, the bodies of the deceased ancient Egyptians were carefully prepared for their journeys into the afterlife. The procedure was so successful that even today, the bodies of these mummies are still well preserved.
There is evidence that the Egyptians began believing in a life after death early in their prehistory. A family member was buried with everyday objects such as pots, palettes for grinding cosmetics, beads, amulets, and combs for use in the afterlife. The body was placed in its grave in a crouched or fetal position, with the head normally pointed south and the face turned west to see the setting sun.
The Egyptians of the early Predynastic period did not use artificial means to preserve the body for the afterlife, but it was preserved just the same. The deceased, wrapped only in a goat hide, was buried in a shallow oval pit dug out of the desert sand. Over time, the heat of the surrounding sand dried out the body. If a body is dried thoroughly, bacteria and fungi cannot eat at the tissues after death, and the body does not decay. Thus, the earliest Egyptian mummies were created by natural heat.
Two things helped the Egyptians to notice that this natural process was occurring. First, the shifting sands of the desert made the marking of graves very difficult, so old graves would be accidentally disturbed when new graves were dug. Second, grave robbing became a profitable profession soon after the Egyptians began filling graves with valuable objects, and exposing the graves made clear the effect the sand was having on the bodies.
Developments in later tombs of this period, though, kept the sand from touching the body. Sometimes the deceased was placed on a mat made of twigs and covered by a twig box. When the Egyptians began specializing in woodworking, wooden coffins also were used. The large tombs of the wealthy were kept as open chambers, often lined with sun-dried mud brick and covered with a plank roof. By now, the Egyptians considered the tomb to be the eternal dwelling place of the dead, a construction designed to provide extra comfort and protection for the deceased. Ironically, by changing the tomb design to accommodate this belief, the Egyptians had created conditions that led to the total decay of the body.
The Business of Mummification
Initially, mummification was the exclusive preserve of royalty and the court. During the period of the Old Kingdom (ca 2575-2130 B.C.), there was only one team of royal embalmers, who mummified members of the pharaoh’s family, courtiers, and officials to whom the monarch granted that privilege. Later, the ritual became more widespread, and independent workshops were set up. The “democratization” of mummies brought market realities into play, and levels of craftsmanship would vary widely depending on how much customers were able to pay.
Even so, embalmers from all workshops were regarded as qualified professionals. Since they possessed anatomical knowledge and had to carry out a series of rituals, they were seen as both doctors and members of the priestly social class.
Various papyri have been found that detail the different professionals involved in the process. One of the most notable was the “Lord of Secrets” (hery sesheta), who performed the rituals wearing a mask of Anubis, the god of embalming believed to have carried out the mummification of Osiris himself.
There were also lector priests (hery heb), who read aloud the instructions for the ritual and magic spells as the dressings were applied. Meanwhile, the cutters removed the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines from the incision in the side of the corpse. Their social status was the lowest due to the impurity associated with the ritual.
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The ancient Egyptians believed that, in the transition from this world to an eternal afterlife, the dead would pass through a "Hall of Judgment." This image shows the critical "weighing of the heart" ceremony.
Initially, mummification was so expensive that it was a privilege enjoyed only by the Pharaoh and a few favorites. Everybody else was given a simple grave burial in one of the vast cemeteries or "necropolises" of the time. But the promise of eternal life was so alluring, that it wasn't long before wealthy Egyptians began signing up for mummification, too. By 1550 BC, every Egyptian who could afford it was mummified.
Embalming became an art—practiced in booths set up along the banks of the Nile river. A top notch embalming job took seventy days. The first forty of these were spent drying out the corpse. The process began with the removal of the lungs, stomach, liver and intestines through an abdominal incision on the left side of the body. The brain was removed through the nose with an implement called a brain hook, which looked something like a crochet needle. The heart, believed to be the source of thought, was left inside the body.
This x-ray is from a study exploring how the Egyptians likely used brain hooks during the embalming process.
After the organs were removed, the body was rinsed with wine, which helped kill any remaining bacteria. It was then covered and packed with a form of natural salt called natron and left to dry on the embalming table. Forty days later, it would be blackened and shriveled, but ready for restoration.
The ancient Egyptians believed that a person's Ka (vital force) and Ba (personality) left the body at the time of death. But they also believed that Ka and Ba could be lured back if an idealized re-creation of the body was offered. This re-unification of body and spirit was the ticket to the nether world.
To make sure the spirit could find the body (which by now looked like a withered prune) a restorative beautification process was necessary. The skin of the corpse was massaged to make it supple, the body was stuffed and perfumed, and padding was slipped under the skin to approximate plump flesh. Finally, rouge and other paints were applied. The last step was to coat the mummy in warm resin and wrap it from head to foot in layer after layer of linen strips. About 150 yards—the length of one and a half football fields—were used.
Embalmers took the utmost care with the body of Pharaoh Thutmosis I, the third king of the 18th Dynasty. His mummy, well over 3,000-years-old, retains a lifelike appearance.
Egyptians stopped making mummies between the fourth and seventh century AD, when many Egyptians became Christians. But it's estimated that, over a 3000-year period, more than 70 million mummies were made in Egypt.
Early South American and Inca mummies
While the ancient Egyptians may be the best-known mummy makers, they were not the first. A very sophisticated fishing tribe called the Chinchoros, who lived on the north coast of what is now Chile, were embalming their dead as early as 5000 BC.
Chinchoros embalmers disassembled their corpses, chemically treated the internal organs to prevent decay, and then reassembled the pieces. They often added wood supports along the spinal column, arms and legs, filled in the body cavity with fiber or feathers, and coated the exterior of the body with clay on which they painted or sculpted. Infants, children and adults of both sexes were mummified, though some corpses undoubtedly received more attention than others.
Further north, another coastal group at Paloma were mummifying their dead as early as 4000 BC. The Palomans used salt to stop decay and carefully positioned their dead with knees drawn to the chest and hands clasped. The bodies were then wrapped in reed matting and buried under the floor of their existing homes.
The Inca, renowned architects of Machu Picchu, paid homage to their mountain gods with sacrificial mummies.
5000 years later, during the time of the Inca (approximately 1100 to 1500 AD), the Andean tradition of preserving the dead was still intact. Most Inca mummies were arranged in the familiar fetal position and were wrapped in leather or cloth or placed in baskets or sat under huge ceramic jars. These "mummy bundles," often brightly decorated, were buried with food, clothing and other items. Some archaeologists believe that the Inca mummified all their dead, not just the elite.
When the Spanish conquered the Inca in the 1500's and 1600's, they forbade the practice of mummification, declaring it pagan. The Spanish destroyed countless Incan burial sites—partly for religious reasons, but also to plunder the gold often buried with mummies. As a result, few Incan burial sites remain.
In 1875, archaeologists did manage to uncover a huge burial site at Ancón on the Peruvian coast. Hundreds of shafts, some 18 to 20 feet deep, led to tombs where extremely well-preserved mummy bundles were found. Apparently, the dry climate and high salt content of the region had helped to prevent decay. The mummies were wrapped in cloth, seaweed, leaves, grass matting and furs. Many bundles were topped with a sort of false head, decorated with eyes that stared out into the darkness of the tomb.
Perhaps the most remarkable Incan mummies have been those found on high mountain peaks, where the Inca offered human sacrifices to their Gods. Over the years, some 115 of these sacrificial mummies have been found in the high Andes. In 1995, Dr. Johan Reinhard stumbled upon the body of a young girl, barely into her teens, on top of Mount Ampato in the Peruvian Andes. Named "Juanita," she is the best-preserved Incan mummy ever discovered. With long black hair, a graceful neck, and well muscled arms, Juanita was found wrapped in a cocoon of fine textiles and surrounded by gold and silver statues, bags of corn, and other offerings. Reinhard led another expedition in 1996 that resulted in the discovery of "Sarita," another sacrificial mummy. (For more information, see Ice Mummies of the Inca.)
Archeologist Johan Reinhard, who has discovered several Incan mummies high in the Andes, here pays homage to their sacrifice.
Other embalming methods
Embalming methods usually reflect the tools and materials available to a given culture. For example, the Aleut people, who lived on the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, mummified their dead by removing the organs and stuffing the cavity with dry grass. Next they laid the body in a stream, where the running water dissolved the body's fat and washed it away, leaving only muscle and skin. The body was then tied in a squatting position and dried in the open air. Once it was dry, the mummy was wrapped in several layers of waterproof leather and woven clothing and placed in a warm cave, either hanging from the ceiling or lying on a platform to keep it off the damp floor. In one Aleutian cave, archaeologists found more than 50 mummies dating back 250 years.
In Papua New Guinea, embalmers smoke-cured the dead, covered them in a protective layer of clay and propped them up on scaffolding that overlooked their villages.
It's not known exactly how the Anasazi, who lived in the "four corners" region of the American Southwest, mummified their dead. But mummies dating as far back as 100 AD have been found wrapped in fur and leather blankets inside caves and rock holes. Many of these mummies were found wearing a new pair of sandals, presumably for use in the next life.
Some of the most spectacular mummies were created accidentally. In 1991, German climbers found a body frozen on top of a glacier near the Austrian-Italian border. Initially, the police and forensic experts who arrived on the scene didn't realize how old the body was—even though he was wearing a grass cape, carrying a bow and arrows and had shoes stuffed with grass for warmth. Later, radiocarbon dating determined that the "Iceman" died sometime between 3350 and 3300 BC—making him the oldest well-preserved mummy in the world.
Like the Iceman, this Inuit child, who died 500 years ago in Greenland, was naturally mummified.
In 1972, hunters found the best preserved human bodies in North America at an abandoned settlement called Qilakitsoq in Greenland. The "Greenland Mummies," who died about 500 years ago, consisted of a six-month old baby, a four-year old boy, and six women of various ages. Protected by a rock that overhung a shallow cave, the bodies were naturally mummified by the sub-zero temperatures and dry, dehydrating winds. Accompanying the eight bodies were 78 items of clothing, most made out of seal skin.
Over the years, peat cutters working the bogs of northwest Europe have uncovered hundreds of mummies. The spongy top layer of a peat bog tends to seal off oxygen from the layers below. A bog's naturally acidic environment also helps to create mummies, giving them a distinctively brown, leathery and lifelike appearance. The oldest "bog mummies" are from the Iron Age (between 400 BC and 400 AD) and are thought to have been the Celtic or Germanic contemporaries of the Romans. Strangely, many of the mummies found in the European bogs show evidence of violent deaths. With slit throats and broken skulls, these individuals may have been victims of ritual sacrifice, just like the mummies of China's Takla Makan Desert.
Perhaps the most famous and best preserved of all the bog mummies is the Tollund Man.
Ancient Egypt Mummification Process
Then came one of the greatest inventions made by man in human history, the process of preserving dead bodies following a series of scientific steps, o be termed “mummification” by modern society.
Mummification of a body consists of two primary steps- embalming and wrapping to prepare the body for burial. The body is taken to the ‘ibu’ or Tent of Purification where the embalmers wash it with water from the Nile and palm wine. Many of the internal organs are removed from one side as they decompose the fastest. The heart is left inside the body as ancient Egyptians believed that it would be needed in the afterlife to judge a person’s moral character.
The brain was pulled out through the nose by using a long stick. The body was then stuffed with natron and covered. Forty days later, the body was washed again and covered with oil to give it an elastic nature.
The dehydrated organs were either put back in the body, or put in canopic jars especially prepared for these organs. These jars were also ritualistic and were dedicated to gods guarding each organ, for example, Imsety for the liver, Hapy for the lungs, etc. the body is then stuffed with dry saw dust, leaves, and linen.
After this, the whole body is wrapped with linen strips and amulets are put to protect the dead body on its journey to the afterlife. Liquid resin helps to glue the bandages together. The body is then put inside a coffin. Amidst a lot of festivities, chants and ritualistic prayers the body is finally taken to be put inside the tomb.Inside the tomb, the coffin is put inside a sarcophagus, after carrying out the “opening of the mouth” ceremony.
This process of Egypt Mummification was intimately connected with the ancient belief in the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that the soul needs a body in the afterlife and hence a proper protection of the dead body was undertaken through mummifying it. This indirectly points to the fact that ancient Egyptians had a great anatomical knowledge.
In time the process was elaborated and new discoveries made from time to time. The root of all such elaboration was a ritualistic and the blind faith of the Egyptians in an afterlife, as real as the life they lived in this world.
Here is a Getty museum video about the ancient Egyptian mummification procedure.
What Is The Point Of Mummification?
Ancient Egyptians believed that there were 6 important aspects to a human being. They are: The physical body, shadow, name, spirit (ka), personality (ba) and immortality (akh). Each aspect was necessary to achieve rebirth in the afterlife.
Every element joins a person at birth, except for immortality. The shadow of a person is always present. A person could not exist without a shadow, meaning also that a shadow could not exist without a person. A person is given a name at birth and for as long as the name is spoken, they would live. This is why a big effort was made to protect the name. A cartouche (magial rope) was used to surround the name and protect it for eternity.
That’s why the Ancient Egyptians performed mummification, as a way to celebrate life and achieve rebirth in the afterlife.
The Mummification Process - History
The mode of embalming, according to the most perfect process, is the following:- They take first a crooked piece of iron, and with it draw out the brain through the nostrils, thus getting rid of a portion, while the skull is cleared of the rest by rinsing with drugs next they make a cut along the flank with a sharp Ethiopian stone, and take out the whole contents of the abdomen, which they then cleanse, washing it thoroughly with palm wine, and again frequently with an infusion of pounded aromatics. After this they fill the cavity with the purest bruised myrrh, with cassia, and every other sort of spicery except frankincense, and sew up the opening. Then the body is placed in natrum for seventy days, and covered entirely over. After the expiration of that space of time, which must not be exceeded, the body is washed, and wrapped round, from head to foot, with bandages of fine linen cloth, smeared over with gum, which is used generally by the Egyptians in the place of glue, and in this state it is given back to the relations, who enclose it in a wooden case which they have had made for the purpose, shaped into the figure of a man. Then fastening the case, they place it in a sepulchral chamber, upright against the wall. Such is the most costly way of embalming the dead.
If persons wish to avoid expense, and choose the second process, the following is the method pursued:- Syringes are filled with oil made from the cedar-tree, which is then, without any incision or disembowelling, injected into the abdomen. The passage by which it might be likely to return is stopped, and the body laid in natrum the prescribed number of days. At the end of the time the cedar-oil is allowed to make its escape and such is its power that it brings with it the whole stomach and intestines in a liquid state. The natrum meanwhile has dissolved the flesh, and so nothing is left of the dead body but the skin and the bones. It is returned in this condition to the relatives, without any further trouble being bestowed upon it.
The third method of embalming, which is practised in the case of the poorer classes, is to clear out the intestines with a clyster, and let the body lie in natrum the seventy days, after which it is at once given to those who come to fetch it away.
There are five sections in the medical papyrus. In the first are short medical recipes, followed by a section on herbs. Next is a long section on skin diseases, followed by the embalming manual, "and finally another section of succinct medical recipes," Schiødt said.
Only a small portion of the papyrus — just three columns of text — covers embalming. Though the mummification section is brief, it's packed with details, many of which were absent from later embalming texts.
"Several recipes are included in the manual describing the manufacturing of various aromatic unguents," Schiødt told Live Science, referring to substances used as ointments. However, some parts of the embalming process, such as drying the corpse with natron — a desiccating compound made of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate (salt and baking soda) — aren't described at length.
"As such, the text reads mostly as a memory aid, helping the embalmer remember the most intricate parts of the embalming process," she said.
According to the manual, embalming a person took 70 days, and the task was performed in a special workshop near the person's grave. The two main stages — drying and wrapping — each lasted 35 days.
Schiødt said that one of the exciting new pieces of information from the text involves a procedure for embalming a dead person's face. The instructions include a recipe that combines plant-based aromatics and binders, cooking them into a liquid "with which the embalmers coat a piece of red linen," she said.
"The red linen is then applied to the dead person's face in order to encase it in a protective cocoon of fragrant and anti-bacterial matter," and this was repeated every four days, according to the study. On days when the embalmers were not actively treating the body, they covered it with straw infused with aromatic oils "in order to keep insects and scavengers away," according to Schiødt.
Work on the mummy typically wrapped up by day 68, "after which the final days were spent on ritual activities allowing the deceased to live on in the afterlife," Schiødt wrote.
Old Kingdom (PJ)
The Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period saw the development of many mummification techniques that would persist until the practice of mummification ended in Egypt. While individually wrapping the deceased&rsquos limbs and using padding to create the image of a lifelike body was largely discontinued in favor of a cocoon style of wrapping after the Old Kingdom, some practices like the removal of the brain and viscera and the presence of a mummy mask became lasting hallmarks of Egyptian mummification. In addition, the use of resin and natron to aide preservation became much more common during these periods.
Mummy from the Pyramid of Unis
The mummy of a man found at the pyramid of Unis in Saqqara dating to around the 5th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom is an example of the linen mummies that were common during the Old Kingdom. The mummy&rsquos limbs are wrapped individually as was the style of the time and after the removal of internal organs, the mummy was stuffed with padding to return the body to its lifelike image. Rather than a mask, the image of the deceased is painted on the wrappings.
Emory University Old Kingdom Mummy
The mummy displayed at Emory University is the oldest mummy in North America. It was found in very poor condition but has since been restored by the University. Dating to 2300 BC during the Old Kingdom, the mummy was found lying on its side (a typical burial position of the time) and its head would have been supported by a headrest. The Emory mummy is an example of the wrapping of individual limbs that was common during the Old Kingdom. The mummy had no mask covering its head and shoulders.