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How the Egyptians Made Mummies

  • By Susan K. Lewis and David Levin
  • Posted 01.03.06
  • NOVA

Getting a body ready for eternal life takes time. Priests and embalmers in 18th-Dynasty Egypt (c. 1550-1319 B.C.) generally spent 70 days preparing a pharaoh for burial. Of course, the bodies of the poor didn't get such royal treatment, and techniques of mummification varied over the 3,000 years it was practiced. In this slide show, Egyptologist Salima Ikram, one of the world's foremost experts on mummification, guides us through a "classic" mummification.

Launch Interactive

How did ancient Egyptians prepare a body for burial? Witness the elaborate process of mummification in this slide show.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program The Mummy Who Would Be King.

Transcript

SECTION 1: INTRO

SALIMA IKRAM: My name is Salima Ikram. And I am currently working at the American University in Cairo where I'm an associate professor.

When you ask people, "Tell me what you know about ancient Egypt," there are two things they say: pyramids and mummies. And mummies are quite fabulous because, you know, how many other cultures are there where you can actually look at the faces and the bodies of the people who lived so many thousands of years ago?

And more scientifically and prosaically, of course, by looking at mummies, you learn a lot about, disease, health, diet, religious beliefs and technology. So all these things make mummies a very important and useful artifact to study.

The Egyptians mummified their dead because they believed that their souls needed the physical bodies to have a resurrection. And that's why mummification took place, because without the body, they felt that the soul would not be able to continue on for eternity.

In the pre-dynastic period, bodies were buried just in the desert sand. And the sand sucked out the moisture and preserved the bodies. Now later on, people stumbled upon these well-preserved bodies and decided that they wanted to aid nature and to make bodies even better preserved. And so they dreamt up the whole idea of mummification.

SECTION 2: CLASSIC MUMMIFICATION

Throughout Egyptian history, mummification evolved. And probably different styles of mummification were being practiced at the same time. Now, what basically everyone calls classic mummification is what you get in the 18th dynasty. And the royal mummies that we have from Egypt, most of them are prepared in this way.

The pharaoh would probably have the best of the embalmers work on his body. They probably were based near the necropolis, which is where a lot of the mummification took place.

The most important god associated with mummification would be involved in the embalming process. And this is the god Anubis who has a sort of dog/jackal-headed face. And the chief priest who would be helping with the embalming ritual would take on the persona of Anubis and would be wearing this mask when he helped with the whole process of embalming and wrapping the body.

The first step in classic mummification was to remove the brain. For some reason, the ancient Egyptians, who had a very good understanding of anatomy, didn't think that the brain was very important.

So what they would do is go through the left nostril, break through the ethmoid bone generally, and then with a sharp object, mush the brain about. Once it was fairly mushy, they'd take another tool and sort of whip it like you do with a blender, so it became very liquefied. And then they'd use a hooked instrument to pull out the brain from the nose. And so it would sort of come dribbling out.

Then the brain cavity had to be looked after. So melted resins were poured inside the brain, because these helped deodorize, sanitize, and prevent bacterial growth. And to stop any of this liquid resin from dribbling out, you often get linen plugs, so that everything is stable.

SECTION 3: EMPTYING THE BODY

The next step was to empty the body of all of its internal organs. Now this was also done from the left side. And the left side was very important to the Egyptians because they thought this was the sacred or holy side, because this is where the heart resided.

The Egyptian embalmer would make a small incision and could sort of fit their hand through there and remove the liver, the lungs, the intestines, and the stomach. The heart, though, would be left inside the body. You needed your heart in your body so that when your soul was reanimated—your body was reanimated by the soul—you could answer questions when in the hall of judgment. And the heart was basically weighed against the feather of truth. And if your heart was heavy, which means that you had lied or stolen or cheated or done anything bad, then you would not make it into the afterworld.

If your heart was heavy and you failed the test, that would be it. You'd be eaten by a horrible monster called Ammit the Gobbler. And Ammit was made up of crocodile head, hippo body, and sort of lion intermittent parts, and was a really terrifying creature.

SECTION 4: DRYING THE BODY

Once the body had been emptied of all of these organs, it would be washed, and probably washed using not just water, but palm wine, which would deodorize and disinfect. And then the difficult, long-term part of mummification took place, which was drying the body using Natron.

Natron, is basically a combination of salt and baking soda that precipitates naturally in an area in Egypt called the Wadi Natrun. It's about 40, 50 kilometers away from Cairo.

Wadi Natrun was considered by the ancient Egyptians to be a sacred place, and a place where the gods sometimes hung out. And maybe the Egyptians thought this because of the properties of Natron. Because what Natron does is, it's very good as a preservative, because it draws out the water. And then the baking soda deodorizes and disinfects.

Inside the body, little bags of Natron would be placed so that they would sort of pull out the internal juices. And then the body would be completely buried in much more Natron. And the Natron had to be changed fairly regularly.

The organs that had been taken out of the body, like the lungs and the stomach and so on, were dried in the same way. And they were wrapped up and then placed in individual jars. These are called Canopic jars. There were four Canopic jars and each jar was associated with a demigod called a son of Horus. Each of these gods was in charge of a particular body part.

Hapi, who was baboon-headed, is in charge of the lungs. Duamutef, who has the head of a dog, protected the stomach. Kebechsenef, who had the head of a head of a hawk, cared for the intestines, and Imseti, who has the head of a man, protects the liver.

SECTION 5: WRAPPING THE BODY

Once the body had been desiccated for 40 days, the body was really very rigid and hard. And I think the embalmers had a great fear that if they didn't do something, body parts would snap off. And to prevent this, and also as part of religious ritual, oils and unguents would then be rubbed over the body and poured into the cavity, and massaged in giving the body more flexibility. Once this was done, they could start with the whole wrapping ritual.

While the body was being wrapped, a lot of spells and incantations were being recited, and incense was burned. So the wrapping was creating a physical cocoon around the body and protecting it, while at the same time, the priests were creating a magical cocoon around the body.

Amongst the wrappings, they used to put amulets that were little images, sometimes of gods or sometimes symbols of different divinities, or the sign for life. And these were supposed to help protect the deceased, and help the deceased make it safely to the other world.

Once the mummy had had all the bandages placed over it, it was finally covered with a large linen shroud. Now, sometimes these shrouds were completely plain. But at other times in later periods of Egyptian history, these were decorated.

SECTION 6: FINAL RITES:

If it were a high-class mummy, it would have a mask placed over its head and shoulders. If you weren't very rich, it was made out of linen and plaster and papyrus called Cartonnage, which was sort of shaped into the face and the shoulders of the dead person. So it was really like papiere maché. And then it was painted and could be gilded even.

The mask of Ankhef is very typical for about 1900 BC, where it actually tries to show in this Cartonnage, the face of the individual that it represents. And so you can see that the man probably had this little moustache and a beard when he was living. And so he made sure that he had it in death, so his soul could recognize what his body was.

The mummy mask of Satdjehuty comes for the 18th dynasty. And it is quite beautiful. You've got the face of the dead person is actually gilded.

Outside of the tomb was the last piece of funerary rites that were enacted. And during this ceremony, priests would chant and prayers would be said. But basically what happened was the five senses would be restored to the mummy so that it could live again. So the 70 days of mummification, it had been in limbo. But before being put into the tomb, it was once again resurrected and could start the perilous journey to the afterlife where it would hopefully be judged successfully and continue on into the fields of the blessed.

Credits

PLEASE NOTE: Black-and-white images of the mummies from the University of Chicago have been color-enhanced.

Photos

Salima Ikram
Courtesy Salima Ikram
mummies of Unknown Man C; Nesitanebetashru A; Nodjmet; Masaharta, High Priest of Amun; Unknown Man, 18th Dynasty; Tuthmosis II, 18th Dynasty; Unknown Man closeup; Tuthmosis II closeup; Rameses II in coffin and closeup; Merenptah; Djedptahiuankh and closeup; mummy wrapped in linen; shroud of Tuthmosis III
Courtesy University of Chicago Library
natural mummy, The Hall of Judgment and closeups, canopic jars, Opening of the Mouth Ritual
© British Museum/HIP/Art Resource, NY
Valley of the Kings in distance
Peter Tyson/© NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation
priest dressed as Anubis
© E. Strouhal/Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY
X-ray of skull
Courtesy F. Filce Leek
Wadi Natrun
Courtesy A. J. Shortland, antiquity.ac.uk/ProjGall/shortland/shortland.html
bag of natron, Valley of the Kings
© Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY
amulet, cartonnage of Nespanetjerenpera
© Brooklyn Museum
mask of Ankhef, mask of Satdjehuty
© Trustees of the British Museum

Related Links

  • The Afterlife in Ancient Egypt

    Why was mummification critical to achieve eternal life? Egyptologist Salima Ikram explains.

  • Mummies 101

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  • Egypt's Astounding Mummies

    See a collection of some of ancient Egypt’s most remarkably preserved mummies.

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