Preparation of the Mummy


The Egyptians are known for their magnificent and elaborate burials from the Valley of the Kings, but in the early stages of their civilization this was not the case.  In the early beginnings of the Egyptian civilization, they had natural mummies, which were buried in the in the dry deserts that flanked the Nile.  This is so their dead were still close the villages of the living, but would not be washed away by the floods or be buried on valuable farm land.  The deserts were so dry that they help preserve the body from bacteria and decay.  The mummies still retained their hair and skin, and somewhat resemble their former self.  This was important at the Ancient Egyptians who “felt that it was unnatural for it to decay, and that there must be some important reason why bodies did not decay, but retained their hair and skin, and continued to be recognizable for many years after death.” [2]   Unfortunately, over time the natural mummies would be dug up for the jewelry or other valuables that were buried with the mummy.  Around five thousand, five hundred years ago, the Egyptians started to bury their dead in large baskets or wooden boxes.  They would also bury the dead in underground tombs with stone floors. [2]   With these changes the Egyptians found that the mummies taken away from the heat of the desert sand were not as well preserved and the bodies started to decay.  This was not acceptable because of the high value placed on mummy preservation and after trial and error they eventually discovered a process to better prevent decay. [2]  




Mummies found with the new method of mummification of linen and plaster or natron, are dated back to the Old Kingdom (2650-2150 B.C.E.). 


Linen and Plaster Method

The body of the deceased would be wrapped in many strips of linen as possible.  Great care would be taken to wrap the individual fingers and toes separately, as to try and keep the integrity of the human form.  In some cases, mummies have been found with a prosthesis for legs or arms under the linen wrappings to help maintain the shape of the human likeness. [8]    After the wrapping was completed, a plaster or gesso would be carefully smoothed over the body over the linen to further smooth and complete the human shape.  The plaster over the face could be further modeled to resemble the former person if they had a moustache or prominent eyes.  The method of the linen and the plaster or gesso hardened over the mummy is called cartonnage, and this method of mummification continued until the beginning of the Christian era. [2]



Natron is actually a natural type of salt that is found in Egypt.  It’s chemical composition consists of a sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and sodium carbonate (washing soda), and sodium chloride (table salt).[2]  Interestingly, sodium’s chemical true name is Natrium in our present periodic table.  In the mummification process, the natron was used to basically salt and preserve the body.  The body would be placed on a special table and dissected open, and natron would be place inside the body cavity.  The Ancient Egyptians would also place natron on the exterior surfaces of the body to help dry and preserve the body.  Eventually, the Ancient Egyptians progressed in their mummification process by removing the internal organs because they learned the internal organs would also decay quickly.  These organs would also be treated with a natron solution and placed into four separate canopic jars that would also have significant spiritual meaning.  The organs that were treated and saved were the lungs, stomach, liver and intestines.  Starting with the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty pyramids, these canopic jars were placed into a separate stone compartment of the burial chambers.[2]   

The Queen Hetepheres, the mother of King Khufu, from the fourth Dynasty; her organs were actually preserved in a natron solution.  It is also believed that the burial of Queen Meresahkh, also from the fourth Dynasty, her body was left in a natron solution for approximately 200 days as preparation for mummification.  The embalming process usually took seventy days.[3]   There was some delay between the time of her death and her burial.  But to submerge a body into a natron solution, the large container would have to be larger than a bathtub, and these containers have not been found as of yet.[2]


Mummies of the New Kingdom  (1570-1070 B.C.E.)

The mummies found from this period are even more elaborately preserved and allowed us to more insight into the burial rituals of the Ancient Egyptians.  As their civilization progresses, so does the customs and rituals for the preparation of their afterlife.  The mummies that were best preserved were of royalty or within the royal court.  There were certain measures taken for preparation for the afterlife for a common person, but not the extent for which was done for the royal court. 


At the Per-Nefer or “the house of vitality”, [3] the body was prepared for evisceration and embalming.  As mentioned before, the main internal organs were removed, but there were mummies also found where the brain was also removed.  The method at which the brain was removed was either by drilling a hole in the back of the skull and scrapping it out; or by using a metal hook/probe which was pushed up the nostril, through the ethmoid bone into the skull, and the brain would be taken out in pieces.  This was not always done completely, and many times this just left pieces behind.  It was most likely very difficult for the embalmer because at times the embalmer was a priest wearing the mask of a jackal which most likely limited his vision.  The incision for the organs was usually made on the left side near the hip, and the intestines, stomach, liver, and lungs were removed.  The kidneys and the heart which were considered the “seat of intelligence and sentiment” were left in the body. [2] The canopic jars that would house the internal organs were treated with natron and sometimes a hot resin poured over the jars to better preserve them.  During the New Kingdom, the four canopic jars would now have the symbolic heads of the Sons of Horus;” the falcon-headed Qebehsenuef guarded the intestines, the ape-headed Hapy looked after the lungs, the jackal-headed Duamutef held the stomach, and the human-headed Imsety kept the liver.”[4]   



The Four Sons Of Horus [6]






















The Four Sons, from the British Museum [6]


After the body had the organs removed, the body cavity was washed with wine, and packed with natron.  Some mummies have been found with packets of natron still left in the body cavity.  The fingers and toes had nails tied to them, in order to keep their shape.  The natron would draw water and fat from the tissues, and the body would look emaciated and dehydrated.[2]  When the body was dry, it would be removed and brought to the wabet, “additional purification may have taken place here (if the body had never been returned to its family, the full mummification procedure may have been performed here).” [5] At the wabet, the body could be finally washed with water from the Nile River and packed with linen or sawdust.   The incision that was made from removal of the organs would be sewn up, and sometime were found covered with a plate of gold or wax.  The nose and eyes were sometimes plugged up with cloth, but there have been small onions found in the eye sockets to make it appear those organs were still there.   Then the entire body would sometimes be covered in “resin to help retain further loss of moisture and gave strength to the skin.”  The linen wrapping of the entire body would usually take place between the fifty-second and sixty-eight days.  The previous procedures took up to forty to fifty days.  The final linen wrapping was a very tedious, yet important and final step of preparing the mummy for the after life.  Each finger and toe was wrapped while prayers were being recited at every step. “Amulets were often introduced between layers of wrapping.”[2] 


Mummies in the Third Intermediate Period (1070–713 B.C.E.)

Fortunately, the priests and bureaucrats of the 21st and 22nd  Dynasties realized the royal tombs were being ravaged and plumaged in the Valley of the Kings, so the priests reburied the mummies in old tombs, so not to attract attention.  As the royal tombs were being transported and cleared, the priests had the opportunity to view how the mummies had held up to the time that had passed since the original linen wrappings were removed by tomb robbers looking for jewelry.  The priests and embalmers of this era wanted to continue to improve their predecessors’ technique.  They would try to insert other packing materials within the body cavity, to keep the body’s appearance more life like.  Materials used were sawdust, rubble, aromatic plants,  [7] or more linens and more natron. This was not always successful because sometimes the body would look more swollen or even pregnant.  In some cases “the materials would burst through the skin, leaving a cracked, very unattractive face.”  During this era, the mummies would also have false eyes made of stone, glass or stone[7], and bodies were painted, yellow for women and red-brown for men.  Some of the mummies also had fake wigs or yarn twisted into their own hair.  The organs were placed in the canopic jars up to the 21st dynasty, but mummies found after the 21st dynasty had their organs now wrapped in linens and left inside the body cavity or placed next to their body.  It is believed that the priests decided this because the canopic jars in the past had been smashed by robbers, so they would leave the canopic jars in the same tomb as the mummy as well.[2, 5]   Even into the Greco-Roman period and the spread of Christianity, mummification continued, but the burial mask from the New Kingdom era were replaced with painted portraits of the deceased on wooden slabs wrapped under the linens over the head of the mummy.[7]




A CT-scan of mummy from 22nd dynasty, the highlighted area shows wrapped organs which had been placed back into the body cavity (the spinal cord is at the base of the picture).[5]


Mummies in the Late Period  (713-393 B.C.E.)

The mummies found after the 25th Dynasty, were either in the traditional mummification custom or just the skeletal frame with the intricate linen wrapping. This was investigated by an X-ray image.[2,7]  The mummies found in the later period actually are from the middle classes, and the royal mummies from these periods have not been found. During the Roman period, some of the bodies found had gold leaf applied to the skin, and some of the mummies were still well preserved from the Oases because of the ideal climate.  The artificial mummification process slowly phased out in Egypt “as the old religion believed that the preservation of the body was essential”[2,7]  was replaced by Christianity and Islam.  But the few Christian mummies that have been examined show to have minor variations from the classical treatment.  The dead were buried in their past everyday wear or in “ceremonial vestments” instead of the linen wrappings or bandages.[7]



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