Throughout the 1800s, the new archaeological discipline of Egyptology fed a keen public appetite for stories about pyramids and mummies. An 1869 story by Louisa May Alcott, “Lost in a Pyramid,” recounts an archaeologist bringing down a curse on himself when he destroys the mummy of a young girl. “I sometimes wonder if I am to share the curse,” recounts his assistant later, “For I’ve a vein of superstition in me, and that poor little mummy haunts my dreams still.”
Mummies have haunted popular culture ever since. By the time of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, the idea of a “mummy’s curse” was already well established in early cinema. Mummies have been Hollywood staples since horror superstar Boris Karloff starred in The Mummy in 1932. The 1999 movie The Mummy and its sequel The Mummy Returns continued the trend of the mummy as a tormented, vengeful being caught somewhere between life and death.
Timeline: Well Preserved
circa 3000 B.C.
Before this date, the dead are generally buried in desert graves, whose sands dry and preserve the bodies.
In the Old Kingdom, some pharaohs are buried in large pyramids. Mummification is developed so that the royal bodies do not decompose.
During the Middle Kingdom, mummification is extended to the wider population and varies in complexity according to clients’ budgets.
Techniques are perfected during the New Kingdom, a period in which it also becomes customary to bury papyri with mummies.
During the Late Period, there is a boom in mummified animals. Many of them are given to the gods as offerings.
2nd century A.D.
Mummification disappears with the spread of Christianity. A new set of beliefs about the afterlife takes hold.
Why did the Ancient Egyptians develop this costly, and to contemporary eyes, ghoulish ritual? Only by stripping away modern associations can the significance of mummies be understood. Objects of awe and mystery, they were created out of respect both for the gods and the deceased, and regarded as a natural continuation of the journey after death.
Mummification has deep roots in Egypt’s climate and geography. The oldest mummies date back to the fourth millennium B.C. and received no elaborate preservation at all. At that time, bodies were buried without any kind of casket in the desert, where conditions dried and preserved the remains. As customs changed in early Egyptian society, bodies began to be placed inside caskets and tombs. Separating bodies from the ground inhibited the corpses’ drying out, so Egyptians began to develop techniques to preserve bodies before burial.
These techniques were closely connected with religious beliefs, which described people as an amalgam of elements. Some of these were material: a person’s body, shadow, and name. Others were associated with their spirit: the ka, or cosmic energy received at birth; the ankh, or vital breath; and the ba, the personality. These elements were momentarily separated when a person died—a source of much anguish to the Egyptian mind. Mummification allowed the spirit of the deceased to recognize its own body, joyfully return to it, and be reborn.
The ritual mirrored the story of Osiris, god of the underworld, who was killed by his brother, Seth. Osiris’s murderer scattered his body parts across the land. Only when his consort Isis intervened, reuniting and burying the fragments, could Osiris be restored to life. In Egyptian art Osiris is often mummified, a task carried out by the god Anubis. The myth underscores how Egyptians believed the soul had no hope to navigate the hereafter unless its body was whole.
A Dummy Mummy
When the Greek historian Herodotus toured Egypt in the middle of the fifth century B.C., he took a keen interest in mummification techniques, which he described in some detail in his Histories. His account also mentions a curious anecdote about “wooden models of corpses” at high society banquets.
“In social gatherings among the rich, when the banquet is ended, a servant carries round to the several guests a coffin in which there is a wooden image of a corpse, carved and painted to resemble nature as nearly as possible, about a cubit or two in length [17 to 34 inches]. As he shows it to each guest in turn, the servant says, ‘Gaze here, and drink and be merry; for when you die, such will you be.’”
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.
A Drawn-Out Process
The embalmers performed their task during a long time phase between death and burial, which normally lasted over 70 days, although there are records of even longer periods. One account tells how the 4th-dynasty queen Meresankh III, wife of Pharaoh Khafre (the builder of the second of the great Pyramids at Giza), was not buried until 274 days after her death.
Writing in the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus observed how when the mourning period had ended, the body was given to the embalmers and “whenever a corpse was conveyed to them, they showed those who brought it wooden models of corpses made like reality by painting.” Once a price had been agreed upon, the embalmer’s work would begin.
Recipe for a Mummy
Mummification was a complex and expensive procedure, in part because it required so many products. Although Egyptologists have not been able to identify all of these with complete certainty, here are the top eight essential ingredients to making the perfect mummy.
1. NATRON AND OINTMENTS Natron was the main ingredient used to dry out the dead body, but embalmers applied oils such as cedar, and perhaps juniper oil, to maintain the suppleness of the flesh.
2. RESIN The importance of resin was mentioned in the Admonitions of Ipuwer, a text from the Old Kingdom: “None shall sail northward to Byblos today; what shall we do for cedar trees for our mummies?”
3. LICHEN AND ONIONS Onions were sometimes used to fill the body’s cavities, often serving as false eyes. Lichen has been found in the abdomens of Siptah and Ramses IV.
4. SAWDUST, STRAW, SAND, AND RAGS... All of these materials were used to fill the body’s cavities during the 21st dynasty. Sawdust was also spread on the skin to aid the drying process.
5. SPICES It has not been scientifically proven that spices were used in mummification. Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus allude to cassia and cinnamon from India, Ceylon, and China.
6. BEESWAX Wax has sometimes been found sealing the mouth, nasal passages, and other cavities in mummies from the New Kingdom and the Late Period. Bees were valued for their magical properties.
7. INCENSE AND MYRRH Myrrh from Somalia and the south of Arabia was used to fill and anoint the body, and its fragrance was highly valued. Incense was used to fumigate the body, and in funerary rites.
8. PALM WINE According to Herodotus, palm wine was used to clean bodily cavities, but so far no archaeological evidence has been found for this practice.
The first stage was carried out quite quickly, since decomposition occurred rapidly in the intense Egyptian heat. The purification ritual for the deceased took place over three days in a temporary structure called an ibw, where the body was washed. Once the body had been purified, it was taken to the wabet (pure place) or per nefer (house of beauty), where the actual mummification began.
According to Herodotus, the embalmers started their work by emptying the corpse’s head. The ancient Egyptians did not see the brain as the center of reason and identity, so they made no effort to preserve it. A long hook was inserted up the nose into the cranium and swirled around to liquefy the brain, which would then be poured out into a bowl.
Next, the internal organs were removed through an incision, usually made in the left-hand side of the abdomen. But the heart, believed to be the center of wisdom, was deliberately left in place. Spells 27, 28, and 29 in the collection of mortuary texts known now as the Book of the Dead state the importance of keeping this organ connected to the body.
Dehydration was essential to the embalming process. The material used was solid-state natron, a hydrated sodium carbonate often found near salt lakes. Immersed in this mixture for a period of 40 days, the body’s cavities filled with the substance and dried out from the inside. In an experiment performed on a corpse in 1994, Egyptologist Bob Brier and Dr. Ronald Wade found that 580 pounds of natron were needed to entirely cover and dry a body.
Various oils and liquid resin were later rubbed into the flesh. This may have helped prevent or delay insect predation and mask the odors of decomposition. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus visited Egypt in the first century B.C. and observed the mummification process: “They carefully dress the whole body for over 30 days, first with cedar oil and certain other preparations, and then with myrrh, cinnamon, and such spices as have the faculty not only of preserving it for a long time but also of giving it a fragrant odor.”
The Dead Go Home
Once mummification was complete, the deceased would be carried to his or her final resting place. A large procession set out from the home. Servants and relatives carried offerings of food, flowers, and furniture. The chest bearing canopic jars containing the dead person’s internal organs was carried on one sled and a casket containing the mummy was pulled on another.
After reaching the tomb, the procession was received by muu dancers, hired to perform at funerals. The casket was placed up right before the tomb by a priest wearing the mask of Anubis. Before the burial began, a funerary priest addressed the corpse, as part of the solemn ritual known as the Opening of the Mouth: “Your mouth now works, I have opened your mouth for you, I have opened your eyes for you.”
Wrapping Things Up
The key trait of the mummy is its linen wrappings, often the last step of mummification. This final procedure was carried out with great solemnity, the wrappers taking many days to entirely envelop the body. The amount of fabric used varied from one mummy to another and, in the case of less well-off clients, belonged to the deceased in their lifetimes. Every single action was defined in minute detail and accompanied by the appropriate spell. Amulets of various kinds were placed inside the folds of the linen to provide greater protection, as well as papyri with magic spells.
If the deceased was a member of the elite, the mummy was covered with a mask and placed in a sumptuous casket, which was in turn placed inside a sarcophagus. A funerary procession carried the sarcophagus to the tomb, the “house of eternity,” where the body of the deceased, now properly fitted out for the rigors of the afterlife, could rejoin the elements of its soul and be born again.
The Cave of Stolen Mummies
In the early 1880s, officials in Luxor suspected that mummies were being sold illegally, and following an investigation, they stumbled on a cache that shocked Egyptologists. In 1881, tipped off by a local dealer, the German archaeologist Emil Brugsch entered a cave set into a cliff face near Deir el Bahri. By the light of his candle he found the “many famous personages of whom we never expected to know more than their names,” including the remains of two of the most powerful New Kingdom pharaohs: Ramses II and Thutmose III, whose mummy was badly damaged by grave robbers. The mummies were later taken to Cairo where they were unwrapped before onlookers by Brugsch and other Egyptologists. The two great kings now rest in the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.