Mummy Dearest: A series, probably

There’s been a few mummies in the news lately, which naturally reminded me that mummies are freakin’ awesome and cool. Climate change less so, but I’m not here to talk about that so mummies it is. As I was thinking about what, exactly, to say about mummies it occurred to me that there are a WHOLE BUNCH of different kinds of mummies, and that in order to cover them all I’d probably have to write multiple posts, but that’s okay, right?

In England, where I grew up and went to school, the most famous example of a mummy is probably that of Tutankhamun, the Egyptian pharaoh whose tomb was discovered by Howard Carter and his team in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 (thank you, Year 4 History). The Ancient Egyptians are well known for their use of mummification to preserve their dead, with the practice extending to sacred animals, like cats, birds, and crocodiles, as well as people. The Egyptian method of mummification — which I’ll get to in more detail momentarily — relies, like all methods of mummification, on preserving the tissues through dehydration. I’ll have to do a whole other post on methods of preservation (note to self, I guess), but, if you recall from my previous post on decomposition, bacteria plays a large part in the decomposition process, so removing things that it needs to survive and thrive, like moisture, can halt that process and prevent tissues from deteriorating.

Tutankhamun’s famous death mask (image credit: Carsten Frenzl via wikimedia commons)

Because all you have to do is remove all the moisture (or, sometimes, the air), mummies occur under a number of different conditions. A hot, dry climate is the obvious one (Guanajuato, the Mojave desert), but they can also occur in glaciers (like in the Alps), bogs (Ireland, Denmark), and sometimes just in regular old graves (soap mummies). And those are just the accidental, or “natural”, mummies — as we see with the Ancient Egyptians, people have also been making mummies on purpose for thousands of years as a way to preserve and memorialize their dead.

As an embalmer-in-training, I was surprised to find that modern embalming is, technically, a form of deliberate mummification, although if you define embalming as the deliberate treatment of human remains in order to preserve the tissues and delay or halt decomposition well, that sounds pretty similar to what takes place when you make a mummy, so it makes sense. In fact, when talking about the Ancient Egyptians in particular, the terms ‘mummification’ and ’embalming’ seem to be pretty interchangeable.

The Ancient Egyptian embalming technique seems to have developed over a few hundred years — the earliest Egyptian mummies were actually natural mummies that formed spontaneously in the desert pit graves where the Egyptians buried the majority of their dead. It wasn’t until after they noticed that the bodies were being preserved through a natural process of desiccation that the notion of deliberately preserving the body after death began to be incorporated into Egyptian religious practice as a way of ensuring a good afterlife for the individual who had died. Unfortunately, there are next to no written records of exactly how the Egyptian embalming technique was developed, nor what the typical process actually was. Luckily, advances in science and technology have meant that Mummy Scientists have been able, through imaging of existing mummies (both wrapped and unwrapped), and experimentation with human cadavers (you never know what your body might get used for if you donate it to science!), to reverse engineer the process and figure out the most likely explanation of how they mummified their dead.

The first step in the process was the removal of the majority of the internal organs, with the exception of the heart, which was left in place for religious reasons (the heart was weighed against a feather by the Goddess Ma’at, who decided if you got to go to heaven or hell based on the result). It’s commonly thought that the brain was removed in pieces with a hook inserted into the cranium via the nose, but it’s actually more likely that the nose-hook (technical term) was used to sort of macerate the brain, reducing it to a more liquid state¹. This brain mush (technical term again) was then allowed to drain out of the nose by placing the body face down and raising the feet above the level of the head. The abdominal organs were then removed one-by-one through a small slit cut into the left side of the body, after which they were often preserved and placed in canopic jars (pictured below), or reinserted into the empty abdominal cavity.

Canopic jars of Neskhons (image via the British Museum)

Next, the empty cavities would be rinsed out with spiced palm wine, which may have served a dual purpose — alcohol can be used as a disinfectant by itself, but certain herbs and spices can also have antimicrobial properties; and it probably definitely smelled better than raw flesh (as most things do). After washing, the cavities were then stuffed with a mixture of natron, a naturally occuring drying agent, gum resin, and “vegetable matter” (leaves? herbs? the text I got this from² does not elaborate). The use of natron is significant here because not only does it draw moisture out of the tissues due to the salt component of its chemical makeup, its carbonate component means that it also increases in alkalinity when exposed to moisture, something which bacteria very much do not like. So, as it draws moisture from the tissues and absorbs it, it becomes more alkaline and therefore more hostile to bacteria, thus making it an excellent preservative. Studies of the resin gum that was used both inside the body cavities and to seal the layers of linen that would later be wrapped around the body have shown that it also had antimicrobial properties, as well as being waterproof, again making it a good choice for these purposes.

After treating and stuffing the inside of the body, the body was then submerged completely in natron for between 40 and 70 days (the texts that mention this step are not super clear) in order to preserve the external tissues as well. The cavity stuffing was then removed and replaced, and the incisions sewn up, and the whole body was treated with various oils, perfumes, and resins, both to mask any bad smells, to keep insects away, and to protect the tissue. The body would then be wrapped in layers of linen, into which sacred amulets were inserted to offer protection from evil and harm. The bandages also prevented air and contaminants from reaching the skin,  and may also have acted to prevent swelling of the tissues in the event that the previous steps hadn’t preserved the tissues well enough to completely halt the decomposition process. Finally, the mummy would be placed in a coffin, covered in yet more resin, and then the coffin would be sealed with even more resin before being returned to the deceased’s family for burial.

This is, of course, a very superficial description of what was actually a highly ritualized process — there were various prayers and blessings of the body, and small ceremonies that took place during different stages of embalming. And, of course, different levels of care and attention were paid to the body based on the individual’s status — only the wealthiest people in society would be treated to the full, elaborate process, and be buried in the richly appointed tombs that we typically associate with Ancient Egyptian burial ritual. However, on the other hand, if you were poor, then your tomb was probably pretty dull, archaeologically speaking, so you’d be far less at risk of having your eternal rest disturbed and your body put on display in a museum for school kids to gawk at centuries later. So, you know, there’s sometimes a downside to being incredibly wealthy, I GUESS.

Mummies are fascinating, so it’s no surprise that Mummy Studies is an area of scientific study/research in its own right. There’s SO MUCH to say that I feel like I could never do the topic justice on my own (although that, clearly, has prevented me from trying). Until my next attempt,  here’s some further reading on Egyptian mummies:

  1. A really detailed description of exactly how the Ancient Egyptians might have extracted people’s brains.
  2. A really thorough overview of the mummification process.

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