The Science And Art Of Mummification: How Did Ancient Egyptians Preserve Their Dead?

Anubis, the Egyptian God associated with mummification and afterlife is depicted in a painting with the body of the deceased.
Anubis, the Egyptian God associated with mummification and afterlife is depicted in a painting with the body of the deceased.

The discovery of Egyptian mummies have amazed people and led to investigations of the mummification process. Mummification in Ancient Egypt involved a series of elaborate processes performed on a dead body in an attempt to prevent putrefaction. Archaeologists continue to promote the fascination with mummies, through excavations, exhibitions, and studies. Mummification has become synonymous with ancient Egypt, as it was an integral part of the society’s religion and culture.

History Of Mummification In Egypt

Mummification in Egypt began as a natural process, owing to the region’s arid conditions and dry climate. Bodies buried at the edge of the desert were naturally preserved, and this affirmed the religious notion of eternal life. Intentional mummification in Egypt began at around 2600 B.C. and was practiced for over 2,000 years. The wealthy and elite in Egypt’s society began to demand more sophisticated burial rites instead of the usual holes dug in the sand. These demands meant that their bodies could no longer be in contact with the sand, but with the artificial methods of preservation would have to be used. After a period of experimental mummification, the practice was perfected into art by the Egyptian embalmers. In the beginning, the practice was an expensive procedure, reserved only for the Pharaohs and the wealthy. However, over time the process became streamlined and became affordable to the masses.

The Process of Mummification

Mummification involved the removal of the bulk of the internal organs as well as moisture from the body. The brain was extracted by use of hooked instruments through the nose. This action was delicate since the face could easily be disfigured. A slit was made in the abdomen’s left region from which organs of the chest and abdomen were removed. These organs, including the liver and intestines, were preserved in boxed referred to as canopic jars and were buried with the body. Only the heart was left intact, as it was believed to be at the center of an individual’s being and intelligence. The body cavity was then soaked in a bath of natron which acted as a dehydrating agent. Natron is comprised of sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate. The agent was sourced from Wadi Natrun, a desert valley renowned for its numerous monasteries. A period of forty days was sufficient for complete dehydration of the corpse. Once dried, the body was rid of all temporary stuffing and filled with permanent stuffing. The slit in the abdomen was closed off, and wax or resin was used to seal off the nostrils. The dried body was then anointed with a variety of oils. A team of beauticians and hairdressers was further called upon to groom the corpse. After beautification, the body was ready for the wrapping process. Hundreds of yards of linen were employed to wrap the corpse effectively. Amulets were placed between layers of linen for protection and were sometimes accompanied by prayers written on linen strips. The warm resin was poured into the form before wrapping was resumed. Once complete, the mummy was placed in the coffin in preparation for the burial rites. Mummification was done on humans as well as animals, as mummies from snakes to hawks have been discovered.

Role Of Religion In The Mummification Process

Religion had a profound impact on the mummification process in ancient Egypt. Egyptians, along with worshipping numerous gods and goddesses, believed in the everlasting life and the resurrection of the body. Their beliefs were mainly reinforced by natural observations such as the belief that the sun was reborn in the east each morning, after having died in the west on the previous evening. The afterworld was referred to as the field of Reeds, a fertile and productive region where people would transition to after death. The body was believed to house the soul, which could live long after death as long as the body was preserved. Mummification was regarded as a means of ensuring entry into the afterworld. Mummification employed the expertise of priests, who were involved in all the stages of the process. The priests also performed ritualistic and religious rites on the mummy.

Tools And Practitioners Involved In Mummification

The mummification process took place in the embalmer’s workshop, often situated in proximity to temples. Some tools were used in the process, the first one being a brain hook which was used for brain extraction. A blade of Obsidian was used to make a cut on the abdomen. The use of a funnel was employed to pour resins through the nose into the cranial cavity. Amulets were placed between the linen layers sometimes accompanied by a mask between the head bandages. Foot and chest covers were further used to give the mummy additional support. The head of the mummification process was the embalmer, a special priest whose office was hereditary. The embalmer impersonated Anubis, the god of embalmer while leading mummification rites. Several other priests were involved in other activities such as wrapping and religious rituals on the mummy. Cutters were responsible for the incisions made on the corpse. The mummification industry in ancient Egypt employed many workers, artisans, and craftsmen.

Legacy and Decline

The discovery of mummies, sometimes in their intact form, has helped scientists gain insights on ancient civilizations. In the era of modern technology, scientists have extracted information on lifestyle, diseases, relationships, genetics, lifespan, health, drug use by assessing the excavated remains. The mummification process has shed light on the cultural and religious practices as well as the scientific innovations in ancient Egypt. The Valley of Mummies, discovered in Egypt, has attracted scientists and historians from all parts of the word. The decline of mummification in Egypt began with invasions from powers such as Persia, Greece, and Rome. The death toll increased as the number of embalmers decreased. A decline in wealth and a rise in Christianity in Egyptian society all served to reduce the procedure’s popularity. The process, which had once been elaborate and sophisticated, became troublesome and of poor quality. Greek mythology took the place of Egyptian mythology, and mummification, which was an important part of Egyptian religion, eventually lost relevance.


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