Mummification is the process by which a dead human or animal may be preserved for a long duration by preventing its decomposition. It can occur naturally or it can be done intentionally. The mummification process is usually associated with ancient Egypt though there are numerous cultures around the world which have practiced it. In Egypt, the process was important due to their religious belief that the soul reunited with the body in the afterlife. They developed elaborate techniques to preserve their dead which were so efficient that their mummies are preserved even after thousands of years. In this article, we primarily look at the mummification technique of the ancient Egyptians and list out the reasons why it was so successful in preserving their dead. We also see how mummification occurs naturally and which other cultures mummified their dead. Here are 10 interesting facts on the mummification process with focus on ancient Egypt.

 

#1 Mummification was performed to help the body reunite with the soul after death

The ancient Egyptians were firm believers in the afterlife. They believed that after you died, your ba (spirit) would depart your body; but only temporarily. The ba would then periodically return to your remains and for this reunion to be successful the body needed to be intact. This reunion was the start of your journey in the afterlife which was filled with numerous challenges ahead. Mummification was thus required to preserve your body so it could reunite with your spirit and start your afterlife. There were no restrictions on who could be mummified but, as the procedure was costly, it was beyond the means of many ordinary people. Initially the ancient Egyptians buried their dead in the arid desert. This allowed the hot, dry sand to dehydrate the bodies leading to natural mummification. Deliberate mummification became a part of Egyptian culture as early as 2800 BC and over time elaborate mummification techniques were developed.

Ba over a mummy in a tomb
Depiction of Ba over a mummy in a tomb

 

#2 The first step in mummification was removal of internal organs

As a result of various methods of study over many decades, modern Egyptologists now have an accurate understanding of how the process of mummification was carried out in ancient Egypt. The first step was to remove all internal organs from the deceased as they decay rapidly. This was extremely important to halt the process of decomposition. Firstly, special hooked instruments were inserted up through the nostrils and into the brain. From there, the brain was broken up into tiny pieces and pulled out through the nose. This was a delicate operation during which the face could be disfigured and hence it required considerable skill. Then, a cut was made on the abdomen, usually on the left side. Through it, all the organs of the body were removed except the heart. The heart was left in place as it was believed to be the center of a person’s thoughts and feelings. Thus it was not prudent to separate it from the body.

Stage 1 of Mummification
Stage 1 of Mummification – Removal of internal organs

 

#3 Removed internal organs were either sealed in jars or replaced in the body

The holes made to remove the internal organs were filled with linen. The removed internal organs were preserved separately. The stomach, liver, lungs and intestines were placed in special jars known today as canopic jars. The design of canopic jars changed over time. Some have plain lids; some depict human heads; some have their covers depicting the head of Anubis, the god of death and embalming; and some feature the four sons of the god Horus, who act as guardians of the organs in the jars. The canopic jars were were buried along with the mummy. In later Egyptian dynasties, the internal organs were not placed in jars but instead they were treated, wrapped and replaced within the body of the deceased. However, canopic jars still remained a part of the ritual and were buried along with the dead, albeit empty.

A Complete Set of Canopic Jars
A Complete Set of Canopic Jars featuring the four sons of the god Horus protecting the stomach, intestines, lungs and liver

 

#4 Mummification required drying the dead body with a type of salt called natron

After the removal of internal organs, the next step was to remove all the moisture from the body. This was done by covering the body with natron, a type of salt which has great drying properties. Additional natron packets were also placed inside the body. When the body had dried out completely, the internal packets were removed and natron was lightly washed off from the body. This process usually took around 40 days and resulted in a very dried-out but recognizable human form. To make the mummy look more life-like, the areas in the body which had become sunken during the dehydration process, were filled out with linen and other materials. Also false eyes were added to improve the look of the mummy.

Stage 2 of Mummification
Stage 2 of Mummification – Drying the body with natron

 

#5 The process was completed by wrapping the dehydrated form with strips of linen

The next step in the mummification process was wrapping. Hundreds of yards of linen was required to wrap the mummy. The Egyptian priests wound long strips of linen around the body carefully. They were so meticulous that sometimes they even wrapped each finger and toe separately before wrapping the entire hand or foot. At several stages in the process, the form was coated with warm resin before resuming the wrapping. Within the layers, the priests placed small amulets in order to protect the dead from evil. Also, prayers and magical words were written on some of the linen strips to achieve the same purpose. A mask of the person’s face was often placed between the layers of head bandages. This was done to identify the person in the afterlife. The entire mummification process, from removing internal organs to completely wrapping the body, took around 70 days.

Stage 3 of Mummification
Stage 3 of Mummification – Wrapping

 

#6 Ancient Egyptians also applied their mummification technique on animals

After the mummy was prepared, the opening of the mouth ceremony was conducted by a priest to ensure that the mummy could breathe and speak in the afterlife. Prayers were recited, incense was burned and more rituals were performed to help prepare the body for its final journey. The mummy was then sealed within its tomb, alongside the worldly goods that were believed to aid it in the afterlife. Most tombs were filled with everyday items like dishes, jewelry, food and drink. Beloved pets were often mummified and placed along with their masters. All kinds of animals, from mummified mice to an 18-foot long crocodile have been found in mummies’ tombs. Over one million animal mummies have been found in Egypt. Many of these are cats as they were considered sacred in Egyptian religion.

Egyptian mummies of animals
Egyptian mummies of animals at the British Museum, London

 

#7 First step of mummification is essential to prevent autolysis and halt decomposition

The Egyptian process of mummification was so efficient that, even after 5000 years, we can still make out how a person looked by studying his/her mummy. On the other hand, in a non-mummified body, it takes a few hours after death for the process of decomposition to begin and it takes a few months for the flesh to completely decay, leaving the residual skeleton behind. The first stage of decomposition after death is known as autolysis. Also known as self-digestion, autolysis is the process of destruction of a cell through the action of its own enzymes. It begins immediately after death and internal organs like intestines autolyze very quickly as they contain digestive enzymes that contribute to the self-digestion. Mummification’s first step of removing internal organs is thus essential to halt decomposition.

 

#8 Efficiency of mummification rests on not allowing moisture for bacteria to grow

The second stage of decomposition is called putrefaction. In it, bacteria breaks down the remaining organic matter. Bacteria are parasitic and they thrive in the moist conditions of decaying flesh and organs. However, bacteria require water or moisture to stay alive and function. In the absence of moisture, bacteria will not form. This logic is the same as drying foods to preserve them for a longer duration. Thus the goal in mummification is to drive out all the moisture from the dead body from both inside and outside. This was done through natron as mentioned above. The body was then wrapped in layers of linen to absorb any residual moisture. Resin, a sticky organic substance, was placed between layers to make them closely packed thus preventing moist air from reaching the mummy. For further precaution, resin was also applied to the coffin in order to seal it. All these things ensured the efficiency of the mummification process.

Mummy of Pharaoh Ramses the Great
Mummy of famous pharaoh Ramses the Great

 

#9 Mummification may be caused unintentionally by natural conditions

The process of mummification can also occur naturally. This usually happens in conditions which are extremely cold, like that in glaciers; or extremely arid, like those found in deserts; or anaerobic conditions which lack oxygen, such as those found in bogs. Decomposition doesn’t happen in these condition because they are not suitable for bacteria to thrive. Natural mummification may also occur due to accidental exposure to chemicals; which again dry the body and prevent the formation of bacteria. Natural mummies have been found all over the world. Among the best known natural mummies is Otzi. It was found in 1991 by two German tourists in the mountain range of Otztal Alps in northern Italy. Also known as the Iceman, the mummy was very well-preserved and is of a man who is considered to have lived around 5000 years ago, between 3400 and 3100 BC. Otzi is the oldest known natural human mummy found in Europe.

Otzi
Otzi or the Iceman

 

#10 First known mummification technique was developed by the Chinchorro

The mummification process is so deeply associated with the ancient Egyptian culture that the word mummy has become synonyms with it. However, the process was performed on every continent on the planet by various cultures. The world’s oldest known mummies were in fact created by small fishing communities known as the Chinchorro. Inhabiting the Pacific coastal region of current northern Chile and southern Peru, the Chinchorro used a different mummification technique. They removed the flesh of the dead bodies; dried the bones with hot ashes; reapplied the skin; and supplemented where needed with sea lion or pelican skin. Mummification was practiced by several other cultures including the Inca and the Aztec from Pre-Columbian Americas; the Maori people of New Zealand; the Guanches, who inhabited the Canary Islands in present day Spain; and the Ibaloi people in northern Philippines.

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