What is a mummy?
A mummy, to put it bluntly, is an old dead body. But
unlike a skeleton or a fossil, a mummy still retains some of the soft tissue it
had when it was alive—most often skin, but sometimes organs and muscles, as
well. This tissue preservation can happen by accident or through human
intervention but, in either case, it occurs when bacteria and fungi are unable
to grow on a corpse and cause its decay.
Historically, quick drying has been the most common method of mummification,
since bacteria and fungi cannot grow where there is no water. Mummies can be
dried in the sun, with fire or smoke, or with chemicals. Since most bacteria
and fungi cannot live in sub-freezing temperatures, permanent freezing can also
produce a mummy. Placing a body in an oxygen-free environment, such as a peat
bog, will cause mummification too, because the microorganisms cannot live
without air. Another way to create a mummy is to bury it in soil containing
chemicals that kill bacteria and fungi.
Some of the world's best known mummies were created accidentally, when a body's
final resting place happened to prevent the natural process of decay. But many
cultures around the world have sought to mummify their dead on purpose. The
process of artificially preserving a dead body is called "embalming," and the
methods used are as varied as the cultures themselves.
Egyptians: the masters of mummification
Ancient Egyptians are perhaps the best known mummy-makers—though
initially, it was their climate, not their skill, that preserved the dead.
Arid desert winds and blazing hot sand occasionally dried corpses out quickly
enough to mummify them. In fact, the oldest-known Egyptian mummy, dated around
3500 B.C., is believed to have been created in this way.
The first "artificial" Egyptian mummies were made around 3000 B.C. These early
efforts at embalming were crude, but reflected the culture's emerging beliefs
about preserving the dead to achieve eternal life.
Initially, mummification was so expensive that it was a privilege enjoyed only
by the Pharaoh and a few favourites. Everybody else was given a simple grave
burial in one of the vast cemeteries or "necropolises" of the time. But the
promise of eternal life was so alluring that it wasn't long before wealthy
Egyptians began signing up for mummification, too. By 1550 B.C., every
Egyptian who could afford it was mummified.
Embalming became an art—practiced in booths set up along the banks of the
Nile river. A top-notch embalming job took seventy days. The first forty of
these were spent drying out the corpse. The process began with the removal of
the lungs, stomach, liver and intestines through an abdominal incision on the
left side of the body. The brain was removed through the nose with an
implement called a brain hook, which looked something like a crochet needle.
The heart, believed to be the source of thought, was left inside the body.
After the organs were removed, the body was rinsed with wine, which helped to
kill any remaining bacteria. It was then covered and packed with a form of
natural salt, called natron, and left to dry on the embalming table. Forty
days later, it would be blackened and shriveled, but ready for restoration.
The ancient Egyptians believed that a person's Ka (vital force) and Ba
(personality) left the body at the time of death. But they also believed that
Ka and Ba could be lured back if an idealized recreation of the body were
offered. This reunification of body and spirit was the ticket to the nether
To make sure the spirit could find the body (which by now looked like a
withered prune) a restorative beautification process was necessary. The skin
of the corpse was massaged to make it supple, the body was stuffed and
perfumed, and padding was slipped under the skin to approximate plump flesh.
Finally, rouge and other paints were applied. The last step was to coat the
mummy in warm resin and wrap it from head to foot in layer after layer of linen
strips. About 150 yards—the length of one and a half football fields—were used.
Egyptians stopped making mummies between the fourth and seventh century A.D.,
when many Egyptians became Christians. But it's estimated that, over a 3000-year
period, more than 70 million mummies were made in Egypt.