A version of this piece first appeared on NOVA's Web site in September 1996 as
part of Ice Mummies of the Inca.
What is a mummy?
Not to put too fine a point on it, a mummy 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 it to 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 also cause mummification, because microorganisms can't live without
air. Yet 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 their dead. Arid desert
winds and blazing hot sand could dry corpses out quickly enough to mummify
them. In fact, the oldest-known Egyptian mummy, dated around 3500 BC, is
believed to have been created this way.
The first "artificial" Egyptian mummies were made around 3000 BC. 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 favorites. 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 BC, 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 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 re-creation of the body was
offered. This re-unification 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 AD,
when many Egyptians became Christians. But it's estimated that, over a
3000-year period, more than 70 million mummies were made in Egypt.
Early South American and Inca mummies
While the ancient Egyptians may be the best-known mummy makers, they were not
the first. A very sophisticated fishing tribe called the Chinchoros, who lived
on the north coast of what is now Chile, were embalming their dead as early as
Chinchoros embalmers disassembled their corpses, chemically treated the
internal organs to prevent decay, and then reassembled the pieces. They often
added wood supports along the spinal column, arms and legs, filled in the body
cavity with fiber or feathers, and coated the exterior of the body with clay on
which they painted or sculpted. Infants, children and adults of both sexes
were mummified, though some corpses undoubtedly received more attention than
Further north, another coastal group at Paloma were mummifying their dead as
early as 4000 BC. The Palomans used salt to stop decay and carefully
positioned their dead with knees drawn to the chest and hands clasped. The
bodies were then wrapped in reed matting and buried under the floor of their
5000 years later, during the time of the Inca (approximately 1100 to 1500 AD),
the Andean tradition of preserving the dead was still intact. Most Inca
mummies were arranged in the familiar fetal position and were wrapped in
leather or cloth or placed in baskets or sat under huge ceramic jars. These
"mummy bundles," often brightly decorated, were buried with food, clothing and
other items. Some archaeologists believe that the Inca mummified all
their dead, not just the elite.
When the Spanish conquered the Inca in the 1500's and 1600's, they forbade the
practice of mummification, declaring it pagan. The Spanish destroyed countless
Incan burial sites—partly for religious reasons, but also to plunder the
gold often buried with mummies. As a result, few Incan burial sites remain.
In 1875, archaeologists did manage to uncover a huge burial site at
Ancón on the Peruvian coast. Hundreds of shafts, some 18 to 20 feet
deep, led to tombs where extremely well-preserved mummy bundles were found.
Apparently, the dry climate and high salt content of the region had helped to
prevent decay. The mummies were wrapped in cloth, seaweed, leaves, grass
matting and furs.
Many bundles were topped with a sort of false head,
decorated with eyes that stared out into the darkness of the tomb.
Perhaps the most remarkable Incan mummies have been those found on high
mountain peaks, where the Inca offered human sacrifices to their Gods. Over
the years, some 115 of these sacrificial mummies have been found in the high
Andes. In 1995, Dr. Johan Reinhard stumbled upon the body of a young girl,
barely into her teens, on top of Mount Ampato in the Peruvian Andes. Named
"Juanita," she is the best-preserved Incan mummy ever discovered. With long
black hair, a graceful neck, and well muscled arms, Juanita was found wrapped
in a cocoon of fine textiles and surrounded by gold and silver statues, bags of
corn, and other offerings. Reinhard led another expedition in 1996 that
resulted in the discovery of "Sarita," another sacrificial mummy. (For more
information, see Ice Mummies of the Inca.)
Other embalming methods
Embalming methods usually reflect the tools and materials available to a given
culture. For example, the Aleut people, who lived on the Aleutian Islands off
the coast of Alaska, mummified their dead by removing the organs and stuffing
the cavity with dry grass. Next they laid the body in a stream, where the
running water dissolved the body's fat and washed it away, leaving only muscle
and skin. The body was then tied in a squatting position and dried in the open
air. Once it was dry, the mummy was wrapped in several layers of waterproof
leather and woven clothing and placed in a warm cave, either hanging from the
ceiling or lying on a platform to keep it off the damp floor. In one Aleutian
cave, archaeologists found more than 50 mummies dating back 250 years.
In Papua New Guinea, embalmers smoke-cured the dead, covered them in a
protective layer of clay and propped them up on scaffolding that overlooked
It's not known exactly how the Anasazi, who lived in the "four corners" region
of the American Southwest, mummified their dead. But mummies dating as far
back as 100 AD have been found wrapped in fur and leather blankets inside caves
and rock holes. Many of these mummies were found wearing a new pair of
sandals, presumably for use in the next life.
Some of the most spectacular mummies were created accidentally. In 1991,
German climbers found a body frozen on top of a glacier near the
Austrian-Italian border. Initially, the police and forensic experts who
arrived on the scene didn't realize how old the body was—even though he was
wearing a grass cape, carrying a bow and arrows and had shoes stuffed with
grass for warmth. Later, radiocarbon dating determined that the "Iceman" died
sometime between 3350 and 3300 BC—making him the oldest well-preserved mummy
in the world.
In 1972, hunters found the best preserved human bodies in North America at an
abandoned settlement called Qilakitsoq in Greenland. The "Greenland Mummies,"
who died about 500 years ago, consisted of a six-month old baby, a four-year
old boy, and six women of various ages. Protected by a rock that overhung a
shallow cave, the bodies were naturally mummified by the sub-zero temperatures
and dry, dehydrating winds. Accompanying the eight bodies were 78 items of
clothing, most made out of seal skin.
Over the years, peat cutters working the bogs of northwest Europe have
uncovered hundreds of mummies. The spongy top layer of a peat bog tends to
seal off oxygen from the layers below. A bog's naturally acidic environment
also helps to create mummies, giving them a distinctively brown, leathery and
lifelike appearance. The oldest "bog mummies" are from the Iron Age (between
400 BC and 400 AD) and are thought to have been the Celtic or Germanic
contemporaries of the Romans. Strangely, many of the mummies found in the
European bogs show evidence of violent deaths. With slit throats and broken
skulls, these individuals may have been victims of ritual sacrifice, just like
the mummies of China's Takla Makan Desert.
Photos: (4) courtesy The Mountain Institute;
(5) courtesy Harold McCracken; (6) courtesy University of Insbruck;
(7) courtesy Silkeborg Museum.
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