Egyptian embalmers were so skilled that people mummified four thousand years ago still have skin, hair and recognizable features such as scars and tattoos.
The word mummy comes from the Arabic mummiya, meaning bitumen or coal and every Egyptian, except the most abject criminal, was entitled to be embalmed and receive a decent burial.
The body was taken to the embalmers by the relatives, who then chose the method and quality of mummification. The best and most expensive methods were used on the wealthy, but there were cheaper alternatives for the poor.
The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BC, described the different methods
The Most Costly
- Draw out the brain through the nostrils
- Take out the whole contents of the belly, and clean the interior with palm-wine and spices.
- Fill the belly with pure myrrh, cassia and other spices and sew it together again.
- Cover up in natron for seventy days.
- Wash the corpse and roll it up in fine linen.
- Fill the belly with oil of cedar-wood using a syringe by the breech, which is plugged to stop the drench from returning back; it dissolves the bowels and interior organs.
- After the appointed number of days with the natron treatment the cedar oil is let out and the corpse is left as skin and the bones.
- Returned the corpse the family.
For the Poor
- Cleanse out the belly with a purge.
- Keep the body for seventy days of natron treatment.
- Return the corpse to the family.
Except for the heart, which was needed by the deceased in the Hall of Judgment, the embalmers removed all of the internal organs from the body. These were placed into four vases, called Canopic Jars. The lids formed the shape of the Four Sons of Horus. The liver was associated with Imset who was depicted with a human head. The lungs were associated with Hapi who was depicted with a baboon’s head. The stomach was associated with Duamutef with the head of a jackal. The intestines and viscera of the lower body was associated with the falcon headed Kebechsenef.
Natron is a naturally occurring white, crystalline mineral salt which absorbs water from its surroundings. It was mined from dry lake beds and used in the mummification process to soak up water from the body.
After seventy days in natron the dried out and shriveled body was washed and rubbed with oil and fragrant spices. The inside was packed with cloth before being wrapped in linen. The face was painted to make it look lifelike and the hair neatly arranged.
The chief embalmer, dressed as Anubis (god of embalming), would bless the diseased and priests said prayers to help the dead person on his way into the next world. Finally, the body was wrapped in linen bandages which were soaked in resin and magical amulets were placed within the bandages as symbols of power, protection, and rebirth. The body was then returned to the relatives who placed it in a wooden coffin.
Coffins and Sarcophagi
A coffin is the rectangular or anthropoid (human shaped) container that held the mummified body. The sarcophagus was the stone or wooden outer container which held the coffin or coffins.
Coffins were often decorated both on the inside and outside in a variety of styles. Some have been found with images of food offerings on the inside to sustain the deceased. The exterior of many Sarcophagi are painted with eyes on the side that faced east because it was believed that the dead person could look out at the world and see the rising sun.
This Lecture by Egyptologist Robert Brier, known as “Mr. Mummy,” one of the world’s foremost experts on mummies.
Brier is the first person in 2,000 years to mummify a human cadaver using the exact techniques of the ancient Egyptians. As Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at Long Island University, Brier has conducted pioneering research in mummification practices and has investigated some of the world’s most famous mummies.
A short animation about the Getty Museum’s Romano-Egyptian mummy Herakleides.
Dr Zahi Hawass explains Ancient Egyptian Mummy Recipe. An Old Kingdom mummy found quite by accident in a tomb at Saqqara.