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mummy Mummies of the World

Mummies of the World | The High Mummies | Preserving a Mummy | Sarita's Land

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.

mummy 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.

mummy 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 world.

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.

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