The word 'mummy' is not of Egyptian origin, but is derived from the Arabic 'mumiyah,' which means 'body preserved by wax or bitumen'; This term was used because of an Arab misconception of the methods used by the Egyptians in preserving their dead.
A mummy is a corpse whose skin and flesh have been preserved by either intentional or incidental exposure to chemicals, extreme cold, very low humidity, or lack of air when bodies are submerged in bogs. Mummies of humans and other animals have been found throughout the world, both as a result of natural preservation through unusual conditions, and as cultural artifacts to preserve the dead.
The best known mummies are those that have been deliberately embalmed with the specific purpose of preservation, particularly those in ancient Egypt, where not only humans but also crocodiles and cats were mummified. Ancient Greek historians record that the Persians sometimes mummified their kings and nobility in wax, though this practice has never been documented in Egypt.
The body of a Persian Princess which surfaced in 2004 in Pakistans mummy had a nature which turned out to have been forged. In China, preserved corpses have been recovered from submerged cypress coffins packed with medicinal herbs. Although Egyptian mummies are the most famous, the oldest mummies recorded are the Chinchorro mummies from northern Chile and southern Peru.
Also among the oldest is Uan Muhuggiag which is a place in the central Sahara, and the name of the mummy of a small boy found there in 1958 by Professor Fabrizio Mori. The mummy displays a highly sophisticated mummification technique, and at around 5,500 years old is older than any comparable Ancient Egyptian mummy.
The monks of Palermo in Sicily began mummifying their dead in 1599, and gradually other members of the community wished to have their bodies preserved as a status symbol. The last person to be mummified there died in the 1920s. The Capuchin catacombs of Palermo contain thousands of bodies, many which are clothed and standing, however in many cases the preservation was not successful with only the skeleton and clothing surviving.
Many ancient civilizations believed in life after death, mummifying those who had died to guarantee the soul passage into the next life. Different civilizations had their own rituals to that end. Some believed that the dead lived on in the tomb, while others thought of the dead as having gone to a blessed afterworld in some far-distant place. That being the case they provided for both worlds, elaborate preparations for the afterlife been made in the preservation of the dead.
Most often when we think of mummification, what comes to mind is ancient Egypt, especially the times of the pharaohs.
Although mummification existed in other cultures, eternal life was the main focus of all Ancient Egyptians, which meant preserving the body forever. Egyptian culture believed the body was home in the afterlife to a person's Ka and Ba, without which it would be condemned to eternal wandering.
The earliest known Egyptian "mummified" individual dates back to approximately 3300 BC. This individual, nicknamed 'Ginger' because of the color of his hair, is not internationally renowned despite being older than other famous mummies, such as Rameses II or Seti I.
Currently on display in the British Museum, Ginger was discovered buried in hot desert sand. Desert conditions can naturally preserve bodies so it is uncertain whether the mummification was intentional or not. However, since Ginger was buried with some pottery vessels it is likely that the mummification was a result of preservation techniques of those burying him. Stones might have been piled on top to prevent the corpse from being eaten by jackals and other scavengers and the pottery might have held food and drink which was later believed to sustain the deceased during the journey to the other world. While there are no written records of religion from that time, the beliefs of those who buried Ginger could have resembled the later religion to some extent.
The earliest technique of deliberate mummification, as used ca. 3000 BC, was minimal and not yet mastered. The organs were eventually removed (with the exception of the heart) and stored in canopic jars, allowing the body to be more well-preserved as it rested. Occasionally embalmers would break the bone behind the nose, and break the brain into small pieces in order that it could be pulled out through the nasal passage. The embalmers would then fill the skull with thick plant-based resin or plant resin sawdust.
It also wasn¹t until the Middle Kingdom that embalmers used natural salts to remove moisture from the body. The salt-like substance natron dried out and preserved more flesh than bone. Once dried, mummies were ritualistically anointed with oils and perfumes. The 21st Dynasty brought forth its most advanced skills in embalming and the mummification process reached its peak.
The bodies' abdomens were opened and all organs, except for the heart, were removed and preserved in Canopic jars. The brain, thought to be useless, was pulled out through the nose with hooks, then discarded. It was also drained through the nose after being liquefied with the same hooks.
The emptied body was then covered in natron, to speed up the process of dehydration and prevent decomposition. Natron dries the body up faster than desert sand, preserving the body better. Often finger and toe protectors were placed over the mummies fingers and toes to prevent breakage. They were wrapped with strips of white linen that protected the body from being damaged. After that, they were wrapped in a sheet of canvas to further protect them. Many sacred charms and amulets were placed in and around the mummy and the wrappings. This was meant to protect the mummy from harm and to give good luck to the Ka of the mummy. Once preserved, the mummies were laid to rest in a sarcophagus inside a tomb, where it was believed that the mummy would rest eternally. In some cases the mummy's mouth would later be opened in a ritual designed to symbolize breathing, giving rise to legends about revivified mummies.
Egyptian Mummies as a Commodity
In the Middle Ages, based on a mis-translation from Arabic it became common practice to grind mummies preserved in bitumen into a powder to be sold and used as medicine. When actual mummies became unavailable, the sun-desiccated corpses of criminals, slaves and suicidal people were substituted by mendacious merchants. The practice developed into a wide-scale business which flourished until the late 16th century. Two centuries ago, mummies were still believed to have medicinal properties against bleeding, and were sold as pharmaceuticals in powdered form as in Mellified Man.
Artists also made use of Egyptian mummies; the brownish paint known as Caput mortuum (Latin for death's head) was originally made from the wrappings of mummies. It was most popular in the 17th century but was discontinued in the early 19th century when its composition became generally known to artists.
In the 19th century, European aristocrats would occasionally entertain themselves by purchasing mummies, having them unwrapped, and holding observation sessions. These sessions destroyed hundreds of mummies, because the exposure to the air caused them to disintegrate.
An urban myth of mummies being used as fuel for locomotives was popularized by Mark Twain, but the truth of the story remains a debate.
During the American Civil War, mummy-wrapping linens were said to have been used to manufacture paper. Evidence for the reality of these claims is still equivocal.
Many thousands of mummified cats were sent from Egypt to England to be processed for use in fertilizer.
The mummy in popular culture
It is easy to see how ancient Egypt, and the practices of its citizens have become portrayed as they are in films, stories and even video games. Mummification as vessel to the afterlife and an almost naive attempt at preservation for later reanimation seems to us now to be so bizarre and shrouded in mystery, that a common concept of mummies should be feared, or that the people who were mummified were indeed fearsome and brutal.
Mummies are often associated with gold or treasure, with a common imagination of their tombs being adorned with gold leaf and precious gems. However, as shown in these images the tombs were often decorated just with paint and made out of simple materials such as wood or clay. What would these ancient Kings and nobles think if they knew that in the modern world their legacy is used as a basis for fantasy worlds in movies, that people play online gambling games themed around treasure hidden in their burial chambers of a pyramid with evil mummys wrapped in bandages, ghosts and ghouls running around. Perhaps they would be amused, a sense of humour can’t have been beyond even these old relics.
Scientific Study of Egyptian Mummies
Egyptian mummies became much sought-after by museums worldwide in the 19th and early 20th centuries and many exhibit mummies today. Notably fine examples are exhibited at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, at the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin, and at the British Museum in London. The Egyptian city of Luxor is also home to a specialized Mummification Museum. The mummified remains of what turned out to be Ramesses I ended up in a "Daredevil Museum" near Niagara Falls on the United StatesCanada border; records indicate that it had been sold to a Canadian in 1860 and exhibited alongside displays such as a two-headed calf for nearly 140 years, until a museum in Atlanta, Georgia, which had acquired the mummy along with other artifacts, determined it to be royal and returned it to Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. It is currently on display in the Luxor Museum.
More recently, science has also taken interest in mummies. Dr. Bob Brier, an Egyptologist, has been the first modern scientist attempted to recreate a mummy using the ancient Egyptian method. Mummies have been used in medicine to calibrate CAT scan machines at levels of radiation that would be too dangerous for use on living people. In fact, mummies can be studied without unwrapping them using CAT scan and X-ray machines to form a digital image of what's inside. They have been very useful to biologists and anthropologists, as they have provided a wealth of information about the health and life expectancy of ancient people.
Scientists interested in cloning the DNA of mummies have recently reported findings of clonable DNA in an Egyptian mummy dating to circa 400 BC. Although analysis of the hair of Ancient Egyptian mummies from the Late Middle Kingdom has revealed evidence of a stable diet, Ancient Egyptian mummies from circa 3200 BC show signs of severe anaemia and hemolytic disorders.
The actual process of embalming as practiced in ancient Egypt was governed by definite religious ritual. A period of seventy days was required for the preparation of the mummy, and each step in the procedure was co-ordinated with relevant priestly ceremonies.
The embalmers' shop might be a fixed place, as in the case of those connected with the larger temples. Often, however, it was a movable tent which could be set up near the home of the deceased.
Removal of those parts most subject to putrefaction was the initial
step in preparing a corpse for mummification. The embalmers placed the body on a narrow,
table-like stand and proceeded to their task. The brain was removed through the nostrils
by means of various metal probes and hooks. Such a method necessarily reduced the brain to
a fragmentary state, and, as no remains of it are associated with mummies, we may assume
that it was discarded. An incision was then made in the left flank of the body to permit
removal of the viscera, with the exception of the heart, which was left in the body.
The liver, the lungs, the stomach, and the intestines were each placed
in a separate jar, the Canopic Jars , and consigned to the protection of a
Next came the preservation of the body itself. This was accomplished in a manner somewhat
similar to that of drying fish. But instead of common salt, natron, a mixture of sodium
carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, with sodium chloride (common salt) and sodium sulphate
as impurities, was used. Natron occurs in Egypt in a few places. Water containing natron
in solution comes to the surface and is evaporated, leaving the natron as surface
Small parcels of natron wrapped in linen were placed inside the body. The
outside was covered with loose natron or packages of linen-wrapped natron. The dry
atmosphere of Egypt accelerated the desiccation process. After the body moisture had been
absorbed by the natron, the packs were removed and the corpse was given a sponge bath with
water. The skin was anointed with coniferous resins, and the body cavity was packed with
wads of linen soaked in the same material. The body was then ready to be bound into that
compact bundle we know as a mummy.
Only linen was used in the wrapping. To give a more natural appearance, linen pads were
placed in the hollows caused by the drying. The arms and legs, sometimes even the fingers
and toes, were bandaged separately. Then some twenty or more layers of alternating shrouds
and bandages were wrapped around the entire body. Between every few layers of linen a
coating of resin was applied as a binding agent. The proper wrapping of a mummy required
several hundred square yards of linen. The shrouds were sheets six to nine feet square,
and the bandages--strips torn from other sheets were from two to eight inches wide and
three to twenty feet long. The linen used in wrapping mummies was for the most part not
made especially for shrouds but was old household linen saved for this purpose. Often the
linen is marked with the name of the former owner, faded from repeated washings.
Occasionally bandages bear short religious texts written in ink.
When the wrapping had been completed, the shop was cleaned, and all the embalming
materials that had come in contact with the mummy were placed in jars for storage in the
tomb. This was a fortunate practice, as Egyptian embalmers were none too careful, and any
stray toe or ear which may have become detached or mislaid during the long embalming
process was usually swept up with the spilled salt and scraps of linen and included in the
But the making of a corpse into a mummy was not all that took place during the seventy
days. The artisans who were engaged meanwhile in all the activities essential to proper
burial might number in the hundreds. The construction and decoration of the tomb, if not
already completed by the deceased during his lifetime, presented an enormous task.
Woodworkers were constructing the coffin-or a series of coffins, each to fit within another - tailored to measure.
Artists were busy decorating the coffins. The fine painting on the
coffins was rarely done directly on the wood, but rather on a smooth plaster coating of
whiting and glue over linen glued to the wood. The beautiful colors on many cases are
pigments from minerals found in Egypt, often covered with a clear varnish.
Countless other helpers were engaged in constructing and assembling the numerous articles
to be deposited with the mummy when it was laid to rest in the tomb.
An extremely important task also undertaken during the seventy days of mummification was
the preparation by priests or scribes of magical texts to be placed in the tomb. These
texts, now known as the 'Book of the Dead' were written on papyrus rolls
varying in length from a few sheets to many sheets, some rolls approaching a length of one
hundred feet. Often they were exquisitely illustrated in color. The chapters forming the
Book of the Dead contained information necessary to the deceased in overcoming obstacles
on his journey and in gaining admittance to the afterworld.
An elaborate funeral procession of priests, relatives, friends, servants, and professional
mourners accompanied the mummy to the tomb. Attended by priests, the mummy, in its
magnificent coffin, was carried on a great sledge pulled by oxen. The mourners followed
behind the sledge. In the procession, too, were porters bearing gifts to be placed in the
tomb. These mortuary accouterments believed essential for a happy afterlife might be
furniture, weapons, jewelry, food, linens - any or all of those things that had made for
comfort and happiness in the earthly life.
The final ceremony at the tomb was the opening of the
mouth. Through this ceremony the mummy was thought to regain ability to move, to
talk, and to eat. In order to fulfill his destiny in the afterworld. It was necessary that
the priests perform this last rite which would restore to him the functions of a living
The mummy was then carried into the tomb and sealed in the outer coffin
or sarcophagus. The Book of the Dead was placed near him, mortuary gifts were piled about,
and priests in the guise of gods made sure no evil spirits lurked in the tomb.
According to Egyptian belief, interment of the mummy did not
automatically insure entrance into the afterworld. The deceased had first to appear before
a group of forty-two spiritual assessors and convince them that he had led a righteous
life on earth. Then in a final trial before Osiris, king of the nether world, the heart of
the deceased was placed on the Great Scales and balanced against a feather, symbol of
righteous truth. Anubis, the jackal-headed god who presided over embalming, did the
weighing, while Thoth, the ibis-headed scribe of the gods, recorded the result on a
tablet. If the heart of the deceased passed this test, he was admitted into heaven. If
not, his soul was doomed to roam the earth forever.
The Pre-Dynastic Egyptian (before 3000 n.e.) was buried in the sand and was
surrounded with pottery jars containing food. He was placed on his side in a
contracted position, and was occasionally wrapped in reed matting or animal hide.
Later, the dead were placed in crudely made baskets, boxes, or pottery coffins,
which were buried in the sand or deposited in small natural caves at the base of
the cliffs in the Nile Valley. By 3000 b.c. men of importance had small chambers cut
for themselves in the rock, often with a shallow pit or niche to receive the coffin.
From these beginnings evolved the typical Egyptian tomb consisting of two
essential parts: the burial chamber and a room in which offerings to the dead were
Most impressive of all Egyptian tombs are those of the Pyramid Age (2800-2250
B.C.). Those colossal tombs that are as famous as Egypt herself developed from a
less elaborate form now called "mastaba" (from the Arabic word mastabah, meaning
"bench," which describes the form of the superstructure of the tomb). The mastaba
tombs are low, rectangular structures of brick and stone built on bedrock. The
building houses an offering chamber, or a series of them, and a secret room
containing a statue of the deceased.
A vertical shaft in the superstructure leads
down into the bedrock to the tomb chamber some twenty to eighty feet below.
The limestone walls in the offering chambers of the mastaba tombs are covered
with sculptured scenes done in low relief. They were originally painted, and some
of the color still remains. It is from these skilfully executed scenes depicting
contemporary Egyptian life that we derive much of our knowledge of the period.
The mastaba tombs are for the most part those of nobles, the pharaohs preferring
the more monumental pyramids. The great pyramids at Giza, tombs of the Fourth
Dynasty kings, are by far the most imposing of the pyramid tombs.
The Egyptians were mummifying their dead even in the days of the pyramids.
Indeed, there are mummies that antedate the pyramids. These ancient mummies are
wrapped in the contracted position characteristic of Pre-Dynastic burials, whereas
the mummy of the Pyramid Age lies full length on its back, enclosed in a box-type
coffin decorated to resemble a house.
In the early days of mummification only the
kings were definitely conceded the opportunity to attain an exalted afterlife.
Religious texts to aid the dead kings in gaining entrance into heaven were carved
on the stone walls of the mortuary chambers of some of the pyramids. These are
now known as the Pyramid Texts.It is on the walls of the pyramids of the Fifth
and Sixth Dynasty kings at Saqqara -smaller and less imposing pyramids than
those at Giza - that these oldest collections of Egyptian religious texts are found.
Although nobles of the Pyramid Age were also accorded sumptuous burial, no texts
are found in their tombs.
By the time of the Middle Kingdom (2100-1780 b.c.), after the period of the
mastabas and pyramids, tombs and their accessory chambers were usually hewn
out of solid rock in the sides of the hills along the Nile. Occasionally, however,
tombs were enclosed by or built under mortuary buildings erected on the plain.
These buildings served as chapels or offering chambers. The mummy of the Middle
Kingdom was placed on its left side in a rectangular wooden coffin on which was
painted religious texts. These Coffin Texts were excerpts from the older Pyramid
Texts, with the addition of new thoughts and symbols. Some mummies had a
cartonnage mask over the upper portion of the body. These cartonnage
coverings--layers of linen or papyrus soaked in plaster - were shaped in human form
and painted. Sometimes the entire mummy was enclosed in such a covering, a
practice which quickly led to the making of coffins themselves in mummy form.
A person of rank or wealth (and these went hand in hand), would have a series of
two or three coffins, each case fitting inside the other, with the inner one the
most elaborate. Often the outer coffin would be carved from stone in mummy form,
or would consist of a huge stone sarcophagus. It was late in this period, when
liberalization of religious concepts extended the privilege of an afterlife to those
in less fortunate circumstances than kings and nobles, that beards appeared on
mummy cases. The beard, heretofore worn only by divinities and kings, indicated
presumption on the part of the deceased that he would be accepted into their
During the time of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties the rock-cut tombs
reached their zenith in the famous Tombs of the Kings in the valleys at Thebes.
These tombs consist of corridors, chambers, and halls descending into the solid
rock of the hillsides a distance of several hundred feet. The walls are covered with
religious texts and scenes, and with inscriptions and pictures portraying every
phase in the life of the deceased, all beautifully painted.
Mummification practices, too, varied with the passing centuries. The use of the
Canopic Jars as repositories was discontinued during the Twenty-first Dynasty
(1085-945 BC), and the viscera were henceforth wrapped in packages and
replaced in the body or bound with it. Hollows in the desiccated body were
cleverly filled out by placing pads of linen underneath the skin. From this period on,
the art of making good mummies went into a gradual decline, even though
mummification continued to be practiced for another fifteen hundred years. Less
attention came to be paid to the condition of the body itself, and more to the
external appearance of the wrappings.
In Roman times (after 30 BC) a garish type of coffin came into use. Showy
cartonnage coverings were formed and painted in fanciful likeness of the
deceased. At the same time, coffin-makers were building coffins of simple board
boxes. On the cover there might be a life-sized plaster face modeled after that of
the dead. Sometimes a painted portrait of the deceased was placed inside the
coffin over the face of the mummy.
Quite naturally, wealth was always a dominant actor in the mummification and burial
accorded an individual. Although actual Egyptian records of the cost of
mummi~cation are lacking, Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian who traveled in
Egypt, touches on burial costs in his writings. According to Diodorus, at the time
he journeyed in Egypt (60-57 b.c.) there were three grades of burial. One was
expensive, costing sixty-six pounds of silver (one talent), another cost a third as
much (twenty minas), and the lowest grade of burial cost much less.
Tombs for the common people had no chambers. The coffins were placed in walled
recesses in the side of a rock or in shallow holes gouged out of the rocky plain.
Mummies of the poor were placed in common repositories, either with or without
coffins. The bodies of those with no money at all were given a perfunctory
ceremonial cleansing, were sometimes covered with a cloth, and were buried in the
The Egyptians believed that a god incarnate assumed the
form of an animal. Nearly every deity was associated in
their minds with a certain bird or beast. So it is not
surprising that we find near the sites of ancient cities
large cemeteries devoted to the burial of animals. Usually
only one kind of animal was buried in a given cemetery.
Adjacent to each such cemetery was a temple devoted to
the cult of the god identified with the specific kind of
animal buried at that place.
The animals were mummified,
but not always too carefully. Chief stress was laid on the
bandaging, the object having been that the package
should clearly indicate the kind of animal enclosed. Often
these animal mummies were placed in theriomorphic
coffins. There are mummies of jackals, cats, ibises,
snakes, lizards, gazelles, hawks, bulls, sheep, baboons,
crocodiles--in fact, almost every conceivable kind of
animal known to Egypt.
At some places animal tombs such
as those of the Apis bulls at Memphis are found. The
tombs of the Apis bulls, which date from the Eighteenth
Dynasty and later, consist of subterranean passages and
vaults hewn in the rock an aggregate length of some
twelve hundred feet. Many of the bulls were placed in huge stone sarcophagi.
The ambition of every Egyptian was to have a well mummified body and a
perpetually cared-for tomb. The children of the deceased were charged with the
maintenance of this home on earth and the observation of all attendant
ceremonies. In the case of a favored government official a portion of the state
revenue might be assigned as an endowment for the care of the tomb.
As the number of deceased ancestors and officials multiplied, however, and the
consequent cost of tomb maintenance became excessive, the tendency was to
neglect those of the remote past and to concentrate attention on those of the
more recently deceased. Thus the living inhabitant of ancient Egypt, with all the
faith he placed in the preservation of his own mummy, was constantly faced with
the anomaly of neglected and despoiled tombs -for tomb robbers were at work
even during the days of mummification.
We have Egyptian papyri recording the
robbery of royal tombs and the capture and punishment of the despoilers. An
archaeologist rarely finds a tomb that has not been plundered.
'Mummy dust' was sometimes stolen from the Sarcophagi and sold.
There are about 500 Egyptian mummies in the US. Most are in museums. Some are privately owned.
Other Egyptian Mummies
'Ginger' is believed to be the earliest known ancient Egyptian "mummified" body