Saturday, October 28, 2006


Egyptian Mummies

Dear Friends:

It has been my privilege to prepare essays on various subjects pertaining to ancient Egypt . This essay will focus on my area of most focused egyptological study – the art and science of mummification. There are links to images and references that can enhance understanding.

As always, I would like to list the sources for the material cited through this article
1) Egyptian Mummies (Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art), Dr. Bob Brier, 1994 (ISBN 0-688-10272-7).

2) The Mummy in Ancient Egypt (Equipping the Dead for Eternity), Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson, 1998 (ISBN 0-500-05088-0).



This piece will strictly focus on the actual process of mummification as practiced by the ancient Egyptians, as well as how we know this information. As always, I will be delighted to address questions from ACOC members on this material.


The Egyptians believed that a fully preserved body was essential, as the spirit (“Ka”) required an intact home. Through centuries of experience and practice, the ancient Egyptians developed very worthy techniques. We are able to look upon the faces of some of the most prominent men in history (e.g., Ramses the Great, Amenhotep the Magnificent) as a result of the art and science they practiced.

The first step in producing a worthy mummy is to remove all traces of water. Water permits the bacteria, which are responsible for the process of decay, to thrive and multiply. Consider a raisin – it is essentially the mummy of a grape. Therefore, the primary goal of the ancient mummifier was extracting as much water as possible from the corpse.

This total process of ancient Egyptian mummification included numerous religious and ritual aspects. However, two specific elements in the ceremony addressed the need for water removal -- evisceration and dehydration.

The first step in mummification, once a corpse arrived and was ritually cleansed, was eviseration. The first embalmer, a priest, would an incision line on the left side of the abdomen. Here is where the obsidian knife comes in. In most instances, a 4 inch slice was made in the lower-right portion of the abdomen, from which the internal organs could be removed. During is experiments, Dr. Bob Brier attempted to use a variety of knifes that were constructed in similar fashion to those available in the ancient world. Ultimately, he discovered that an obsidian blade (refered to in Greek literature as the “Ethiopian Knife”) was surgically sharp and the single most effective tool to begin the eviscerating procedure.

It is interesting to note that the “Slitter”, as this individual is termed in ancient Egyptian texts, was reviled for this act of desecration. The other members of the mummification crew would have tossed stones at him after the cut. Likely they missed, as the “Slitter” was most likely a brother or another member of the family engaging in the clan’s business. Also officiating at the ceremony was an embalmer wearing an Anubis mask, performing specific rituals during the mummification process.

The internal organs, called viscera, were normally removed from the thoracic and abdominal cavities through an abdominal incision in the left flank. In some instances, the viscera were not extracted at all, while in others they were removed through the anus. Typically, however, there will be a 4-inch incision though which even the largest abdominal organ (the liver) could be removed. Dr. Brier commented that the liver came out in two sections, but was able to be extracted though the small slit.

This organ tissue was then dehydrated with natron, and either placed in canopic jars or made into four packages and reinserted into the body cavities (especially during the 21st dynasty and after). Some were wrapped in one large packet that was placed on the legs of the mummy. Interestingly, the heart was considered to be the organ associated with the individual's intelligence and life force and was therefore retained in place, while the brain was removed and discarded.

The brain itself is a water-rich organ, and had to be removed for effective mummification. Reviewing the ancient literature, it was theorized that a hook was inserted into the nostril, and the brain removed in piecemeal fashion. However, during his 1994 mummification of a modern man, Dr. Brier ascertained the hook was used to scramble the brain matter, which would then ooze out once the head was tipped. Then, linen would be inserted and removed, extracting more residue. Only when the linen came out clean would this process be concluded. As mentioned before, the brain was discarded as useless.

After removal of the internal organs, the body cavities were washed out with spiced palm wine and then filled with a mixture of dry natron (a type of salt) gum resin and vegetable matter. An average sized human being requires 600 pounds of natron for dehydration. Once placed on special boards (which would permit the corpse to be completely surrounded by natron, so that the glutteal and back areas would be dried), the corpse was left to dehydrate for a period of approximately 35 days. At that point, the limbs were still mobile enough for movement (so that the mummy could be posed in classic funereal styles).

It is interesting to note that natron, believed to be the main ingredient used to pack the body, is found in a dry desert valley called the Wadi Natrun, now famous for its monasteries. It is composed of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate and includes some natural impurities. Originally, there was some discussion in Egyptology circles concerning the use of natron, actual salt (sodium chloride), or lime (calcium carbonate) as the main dehydration agent in Egyptian mummification. There was also a question of whether the natron was used in a solution such as water, or in a solid state. However, assessment of the Greek texts that describes the process, together with modern experiments on mummification has led us to believe that dry natron provides the most satisfactory results and was probably used exclusively.

After the body was completely dehydrated, the temporary stuffing that was used to fill the body was removed from its cavities and replaced with the permanent stuffing and sometimes also with the viscera packages. Next the abdominal incision was closed, the nostrils were plugged with resin or wax, and the body was anointed with a variety of oils and gum resins, which may have also played some part in preventing or delaying insect attack and in masking the odors of decomposition that would have accompanied the mummification process. However, all of these later stages were essentially cosmetic and had little effect in preserving the tissues.

After the basic mummification process was completed, the embalmers then wrapped the mummy in layers of linen bandages, between which they inserted protected amulets to guard the deceased from evil and danger. A decomposing body will soon begin to swell and loose its recognizable human form. This swelling will effect all of the body, but is particularly apparent in the abdomen, where gasses being produced by bacteria inflate the intestines. Removal of the internal organs of course aids in preventing this process. However, bandaging of the body also prevents or at least restricts such swelling, as well as excluding air from direct contact with the corpse, thus slowing deterioration. Bandaging would also prevent the formation of blisters on the skin, caused by fluid within the body, which appear in the first stages of decomposition. It is thought that the bandages were derived from the bed-linens and clothing items the ancient Egyptians utilized during their lives.

Next, a liquid or semi-liquid resinous substance was then poured over the mummy and coffin. The mummy and coffin were then returned to the family of the deceased for the funeral and burial.

At the end of the embalming process the priest would conclude by repeating an embalming spell:

You will live again, you will live forever. Behold, you are young again forever”.


The approach I described above was essentially the premier treatment. There were two less expensive value packages that Herodotus mentions did not involve the complete evisceration of the body. In a second method, which was also used for animal mummification, oil of cedar was injected into the anus, which was then plugged to prevent the liquid from escaping. The body was afterwards treated with natron. Next, the oil was drained off and the intestines and the stomach, which became liquefied by the natron, came away with the oil. All that remained was actually the skin and the skeleton. The body was returned to the family in this state for burial. However, this was even superior to the cheapest method, where the body was purged so that the intestines came away. Afterwards, the body was treated with natron.

Over the long history of ancient Egyptian mummification, there were only two major additions to the basic procedure. From as early as the Middle Kingdom, the brain was removed in some mummies and by the New Kingdom, this procedure of excerebration had become widespread. This process involved the insertion of a metal hook by the embalmer into the cranial cavity through the nostril and ethmoid bone, and the brain was pulverized to fragments so that it could be removed with a spatula type instrument. However, at times, access was gained to the cranial cavity either through the base of the skull or an eye socket. Obviously, it would have been impossible to remove every small fragment of the brain through any of these methods. Before the mummification was complete, the emptied cranial cavity was packed with strips of linen that had been impregnated with resin, though at other times molten resin was poured into the skull. In fact, King Tutankhamen’s skull contains such resin residue.

The second innovation in mummification was probably not introduced until as late as the 21st Dynasty. Then the embalmers sought to develop a technique that originally had been used during the 18th Dynasty mummification of King Amenhotep III. His embalmers had attempted to recreate the plumpness of the king's appearance by introducing packing under the skin of his mummy though incisions made in his legs, neck and arms. The priests of the 21st Dynasty began to use this subcutaneous packing for anyone who could afford such an expensive technique. Now, the body cavities were packed through a flank incision with sawdust, butter, linen and mud, and the four individually wrapped packages of viscera were also inserted into these cavities, rather than being placed in canopic jars.

Subcutaneous material was also inserted through mall incisions into the skin, the neck and the face was packed through the mouth. Hence, the embalmers attempted to retain the original body contours at least to some extent in order to give the mummy a more lifelike appearance. In fact, artificial eyes were often placed in the eye sockets and the skin was sometimes painted with red ocher (for men) or yellow ocher (for women). False plaits and curls were even woven into the natural hair. However, these very expensive and time consuming processes were not retained beyond the 23rd Dynasty.

The following is an example of the high-point in Mummification: the mummy of 21st Dynasty Queen Nodjmet. Prepared with subcutaneous stuffing, flase hair, and inlaid eyes, she is extremely well preserved and almost looks asleep. Nodjmet was the wife of the Priest-King, Herihor.


One can readily assume the entire mummification process was an odoriferous one. Bob Brier noted that one of the titles Anubis (the ancient Egyptian god devoted to mummification) was “He Who Is Upon His Hill” or “He Who Is In His Tent”. Therefore, it is theorized that most mummification was conducted within tents, outside the borders of the city/village on nearby hills.

During the Graeco-Roman period, records indicate it would cost about 450 drachmae (about $5000) to prepare a mummy. The most costly item was linen, as so much was used. Addional charges included an Anubis mask (probably worn during specific ceremonies by one of the embalmers), mourners, and carriage by donkey.


The history of Egyptian mummifcation can be summarized based on the kingdom divisions of the Egypt’s history.

· Old-Kingdom (initial experimentation; mummies made mainly of royal persons; mummies essentially consist of wrapped corpses poorly preserved).

· Middle-Kingdom (moderate progress; mummies made of nobles and royals; better dehydration and preservation techniques.)

· New Kingdom (High-Mark; mummies made of nobles, royals, and the wealthy; brain removal and subcutaneous padding).

· Late Kingdom (Generally good, and mummification services offered to more and more citizens; explosion in the number of animal mummies produced).

· Graeco-Roman Period (Generally poor preservation, but the bandaging is precise and is an artform in itself; mummification is available to all who can afford it; cartonage and gold-covered masks cover the mummies).

The history in full starts with an understanding that in Egypt, a combination of climate and environment, as well as the people's religious beliefs and practices, led first to unintentional natural mummification and then to true mummification. In Egypt, and particularly ancient Egypt, there was a lack of cultivatable land and so the early Egyptians chose to bury their dead in shallow pit-graves on the edges of the desert, where the heat of the sun and the dryness of the sand created the natural mummification process. Even this natural process produced remarkably well preserved bodies. Often, these early natural mummified bodies retained skin tissue and hair, along with a likeness of the person's appearance when alive.

Prior to about 3400 BC, all Egyptians were buried in pit graves, whether rich or poor, royal or common. Later however, as prosperity and the advance in building techniques improved, more elaborate tombs for those of high social status were constructed. Yet at the same time, these brick lined underground burial chambers no longer provided the conditions which led to natural mummification in the older pit graves. Now however, mummification had been established in the religious belief system so that the deceased's ka, or spirit, could return to and recognize the body, reenter it, and thus gain spiritual sustenance from the food offerings. Hence, a method was sought to artificially preserve the bodies of the highest classes. However, preservation of the body was probably also required due to the longer period that it took to actually inter the body, as grave goods and even the tomb itself received final preparations.

What we sometimes called true mummification involves a sophisticated process that was developed from experimentation. The best example of this process is Egyptian mummification, which involved the use of chemical and other agents. The experimentation that led to true mummification probably lasted several hundred years. Such efforts may have begun as early as the 2nd Dynasty. J. E. Quibell, an Egyptologist who worked in some primitive Egyptian necropolises, found a large mass of corroded linen between the bandages and bones of a body interred in a cemetery at Saqqara that perhaps evidences an attempt to use natron or another agent as a preservative by applying it to the surface of the skin.

Another early technique involved the covering of the body in fine linen and then coating this with plaster to carefully preserve the deceased's body shape and features, in particular the head. In 1891, W. M. Flinders Petrie discovered a body at Meidum dating to the 5th Dynasty in which there had been some attempt to preserve the body tissue as well as to recreate the body form. Bandages were carefully molded to reproduce the shape of the torso. Arms and legs were separately wrapped and the breasts and genitals were modeled in resin-soaked linen. Nevertheless, decomposition had taken the body beneath the bandages, and only the skeleton remained.

Only as early as the 4th Dynasty do we actually find convincing evidence of successful, true mummification. The mother of Khufu (i.e., Hetepheres), the king who built the Great Pyramid at Giza, also had a tomb at Giza. Though her body has not been found, in her tomb was discovered preserved viscera which could probably be attributed to this queen. An analysis of these viscera packets proved that they had been treated with natron, the agent that was successfully used in later times to dehydrate the body tissue. Hence, this find demonstrates that the two most important components of mummification, evisceration of the body and dehydration of the tissues, was already in use by royalty. Afterwards, mummification continued to be practiced in Egypt for some three thousand years, lasting until the end of the Christian era.

As Egyptian history progressed, mummification became available to people of the upper and even the middle classes. During the Middle Kingdom, the political and economic growth of the middle classes and the increased importance of religious beliefs and practices among all Egyptian social classes resulted in the spread of mummification to new sections of the population. More mummies have survived from that period than from the Old Kingdom, but it is also evident that less care was taken in their preparations. Mummification was actually most widespread during the Greco-Roman period. It was then that foreign immigrants who settled in Egypt began to adopt Egyptian funerary beliefs and customs. Mummification at that time became an increasingly prosperous commercial venture, and it tended to indicate the decease's social status rather than any religious conviction. This resulted in a further decline in the quality of the mummification process. At that time, bodies were elaborately bandaged and encased in covers made of cartonnage (a mixture of plaster and papyrus or linen). However, modern radiographic analysis confirms that these bodies were frequently poorly preserved inside their wrappings. Mummification was never generally available to the common classes of people. Yet, since they could not afford the sophisticated funerary structures, they continued to be interred in simple desert graves where their bodies were naturally preserved.


The following section summarizes important things to look for, so that you can readily identify the general period of time during which an Egyptian mummy was prepared. This list is not all inclusive, but should give ACOC members an idea of the basic trends and identification clues that can be used in determining the age of a specific mummy.

Old Kingdom (Mummies of Royals. Very rare; never usually seen outside of Egypt or the oldest European Collections).

· Plastered-Shaped Mummy

· Plain Wooden Coffins, Box-Shaped.

· When used, stone or pottery Canopic jars were plain.

Middle Kingdom (Mummies of Royals and Nobles).

· Plaster Masks (called Cartonnage), generally of simple design, but usually of high quality and beauty.

· Wooden Coffins, Box-Shaped.

· Coffins have elaborate hieroglyphics, and eyes on the side of the box.

· Mummy buried on its side.

· Stone or pottery Canopic jars were plain or had human heads.

New Kingdom – Late Kingdom (Mummies of Royals, Nobles, and Wealthy).

· Plaster Masks (called Cartonnage), of more complex design (e.g., feathered headdresses). These tend to be more colorful and garish then Middle Kingdom.

· The Royal Mummies would have gold or silver masks (e.g., the famous one of King Tutankhamen).

· Arthropoid Coffins, Human-Shaped.

· Coffins have elaborate hieroglyphics.

· Richer burials utilize box-shaped wood or stone sarcophagus, which can be highly decorated (either with paintings or reliefs)

· Canopic jars were generally had human heads or those of the Four Sons of Horus.

· Papyrus “Book of the Dead” are buried with the mummy.

Ptolemaic-Graeco-Roman (Mummies of all who can afford the price).

· Plaster Masks (called Cartonnage), were used/ However, there was a wide variety of types, and many were highly influenced by Greek art (which focused on producing more realistic results). Plaster or gold-foil masks with very Greek characteristics are noted.

· Some of the wealthier mummies (especially in later history) have encaustic mummy portraits instead of masks. These portraits are as close to a snap-shot of what the actual individual looked like as could be achieved during this period of history.

· The quality of preservation techniques deteriorated. However, the bandaging became quite elaborate to make up for it. Therefore, a mummy with diamond-shaped patterns of bandages will always be from this period.

· Canopic jars may or may not be associated with a burial.

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