Mummification was a process undertaken by the ancient Egyptians. They believed that by preserving a body, its soul could live on in the afterlife. Embalmers offered various packages, which included a basic, standard and luxury version.
Even so, it was only the rich that could afford to mummify their dead and thereafter place them in an elaborate tomb. Ordinary civilians were buried in pit graves, and some of these bodies were naturally dried.
Mummification was an elaborate and lengthy process that took 70 days. The violation of the body was abhorred, so the first incision performed on the corpse was made by a ‘scapegoat’. He was then ritually stoned and chased from the embalming chamber. Afterwards, the intestines, lungs, stomach and liver were removed – these were mummified and placed in special containers called canopic jars. The brain was pulverized with a long narrow instrument and drained through the nose or the back of the skull.
The heart, which was then known as the seat of learning, was left inside the body. During the mummification process the priests would venerate the dead; they would light incense, recite prayers and invoke aid and protection from ancient Egyptian gods. Once cleansed, the body was then ready to be dried.
The ancient Egyptians placed the body in natron salts, which absorbed all its moisture. After a period of 40 days it was removed and packed with herbs, oils and spices, which were known to cleanse and preserve the cavities. If extra body parts were needed the corpse was equipped with false wooden limbs, or eyes made of obsidian. It was then ready for bandaging. Each limb was carefully tended to; fingers and toes were treated individually, and golden caps were placed on the nails. In order to protect it, a large number of amulets were left on specific parts of the body. Often, garlands of leaves or berries, which were thought to have rejuvenating properties, were placed around the neck. The hair was dressed with oils and jewellery. Due to heat and lice, the ancient Egyptians shaved their heads, so elaborate wigs (made of human hair) were placed on the deceased. Makeup was applied, and it was dressed in fine clothes and adornments. While women were buried with combs and pottery, men were armed with daggers or swords. These were placed either on the body or within the wrappings.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Egyptology was in its infancy. Many early excavators ignored human remains. The first archaeologists were more interested in treasure than mummies, and even the body of Tutankhamun was subjected to trauma. Although Ho ward Carter was a brilliant excavator, he could not have imagined the wonders that the dead could reveal. Nor did he envisage that innovations in science would enable us to make important new discoveries about ancient Egyptian mummies. Despite this, the world was now fascinated. Even in Victorian times, the unwrapping of an Egyptian mummy (which often took place in affluent drawing rooms) would be followed by tea, cake and polite conversation.
Thankfully, times have changed and the first scientific unwrapping of a mummy took place in Manchester when Margaret Murray examined the two brothers, Khnum-Nakht and Nekht-Ankh, in 1908. Manchester continues its strong association with the scientific study of mummies. It is here that Professor Rosalie David conducted many innovative investigations into ancient disease. In 1979 she established the International Mummy Database, which employs endoscopy and serological studies, x-ray examinations and MRI scans. Perhaps the most important investigation into ancient mummies was undertaken in Paris between 1976-1977, when the mummy of Ramesses II was met at Orly airport and treated like a visiting head of state. A team of over 100 scientists, including botanists, microbiologists and anthropologists, worked on his body and published startling new evidence about mummification techniques.
Examinations that employ DNA sampling are now used in mummy studies. While the practice is still limited, it can enable Egyptologists to identify, establish and study family groups. We are now able to shed light on the everyday life of the ancient Egyptians, going on to analyze dental hygiene, hair dyes and makeup. When examining mummies we are now able to study textiles, jewellery, oils and even head lice – the oldest ‘nits’ in the world were found on a Manchester mummy. From these examinations we can learn a great deal about the diseases, afflictions and the general aches and pains of all classes of people, and we can even identify trauma wounds, arthritis and polio. With the invention of new scanning techniques, the destructive process of ‘unwrapping’ a mummy is now a thing of the past. What remains constant, however, is that mummies continue to fascinate, excite and inspire us.
Although the House of the Dead was occupied by priests and their servants, it was also regarded as a place of dread. The sight or smell of the embalming chamber was viewed with fear and repulsion. Inside the House of the Dead, there would often be a long queue of bodies waiting to be embalmed; they would be placed on sloping beds so that body fluids and blood would drain into vats. Flies, inexperience and heat could make the work difficult. As we have explained, the embalming process was an urgent and bloody activity-when rushed, the embalmers often lost or severed limbs. The morality of the morticians was also regarded with suspicion; they were often associated with robbery and corruption. On the other hand, morticians were viewed as mystics and magicians, and a sense of secrecy surrounded their art.
Types of natural mummies
Bog bodies – Waterlogged peat holds very little oxygen, and this means that the microorganisms that cause decomposition cannot survive. The acidity in the bog, along with sphagnum moss, also helps to preserve the body. While the skin, hair and internal organs are remarkably well preserved, the bones are softened. The body begins to take on a dark, leathery appearance.
Self-mummification – was practiced by the Sokushinbutsu, a group of Japanese Buddhist monks. For several years, the monks would live on a diet of seeds and nuts and would drink the sap of the Urushi tree, which would cause vomiting and loss of body mass. They would seal themselves in a tomb and die -if the body had mummified, it was regarded as a holy vessel.
Desiccation – When left in the open, water, insects and heat will rapidly destroy the body. If the body buried in sand or salt, moisture in the flesh is absorbed and the corpse is preserved. More importantly, in the case of Egyptian mummies the removal of internal organs aids this process, preventing internal bloating and decay.
Ice mummies – Ice prevents decomposition of the body and inhibits the growth of bacteria. It also preserves pollen and dust grains. Ice is an excellent and effective agent, so ice mummies seem very lifelike. Their hair, eyelashes and body decorations are often astounding. Ice mummies have even been discovered with votive offerings and grave goods.
Mummies around the World
Fact – Ice mummies – Dated to the Pazryk culture, the Ice Maiden and her contemporaries are dated 6th to 3rd Centuries BC. These mummies were buried with elaborate funerary equipment – in the case of the Ice Maiden, there were six horses and a symbolic last meal. Her body is covered in a series of beautiful blue tattoos which depict mythical animals.
Fact – Mummies of the Canary Islands – The Guanche mummies were found on the Canary Islands in the 15th Century, when they were discovered by Spanish invaders. Little is known of them – many were pulverized and used as medicinal powders to aid stomach complaints. Dried in the Sun, the mummies were packed with sand and wrapped in animal skins. They were then placed on mummy boards and left in caves.
Fact – Inca mummies – found in Peru and Chile, are approximately 500 years old. The remains are those of young children sacrificed on the mountains of the Andes, in order to honour the gods. Other mummies include those known as the ‘Cloud People’, which are found in northern Peru. These mummies were mummified in the driest of the jungle.
Fact – Mummies of the King’s Capuchin Catacombs – Dated between the late-16th and 20th Centuries, the mummies of the King’s Capuchins Catacombs are magnificent examples of the art of embalming. Thousands of bodies were dried here in ‘strainers’ (cells that are situated in the passageways of the catacombs). After eight months they were removed and soaked in vinegar. Adults and children are placed on display in coffins, niches and on the walls.
Top 3 mummy discoveries
1. Sir John Franklin – In 1847, explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew of 129 disappeared on an expedition to the Arctic. The mummies of Torrington (21), Hartnell (25) and Franklin (61) were found in good condition.
2. Juanita the Ice Maiden – Juanita, or the ‘Ice Maiden’, was sacrificed to mountain deities when she was 13/14 years old. She was found on a mountain by anthropologist Johan Reinhard.
3. Tutankhamun’s children – Included in the category of rare Egyptian mummies are two fetuses, thought to be the children of Tutankhamun. They are believed to be twins.
No.1 Fact – Mummia – The term ‘mummification’ comes from ‘mummia’, an Arabic word that means pitch or resin. This dark, viscous liquid was used in the later stages of mummification.
No.2 Fact – Ramesses II – was one of Egypt’s greatest rulers. When he was moved to Paris for scientific exams, he had a passport that described him as ‘King (deceased)’.
No.3 Fact – Healing the sick – ‘Mummia’ is described by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. Until the 20th Century people took mummia to cure ills such as stomach upsets, headaches and arthritis.
No.4 Fact – Making a mummy – Artist Robert Lenkiewicz inherited the body of a tramp and mummified the remains. Hotly pursued by Plymouth City Council, he hid the remains in a drawer.
No.5 Fact – Tutankamun – While most mummies are in museums, the remains of Tutankhamun were kept in his tomb. Discovered in 1922, the body still lies in the Valley of the Kings.