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The Mummification Process

Preparing the Mummy

Everybody loves a good mummy! As early as the the Victorian Era, mummies have captivated people's imaginations, frequently leading to bouts of "Egyptomania" and periods of increased interest in ancient Egyptian history and material culture (such as the so-called "Egyptian Revival" Art Deco style of the 1920s). Even into the modern era, mummies still hold a special intrigue and air of mystery for the public, inspiring an onslaught of books, films, and shows revolving around their discovery and, of course, the famed "mummy's curse". While we've already talked a bit about the Thutmoside mummies of the 18th Dynasty (see the DB320 Mummy Cache), I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at the actual process of mummification during the New Kingdom, and the painstaking work it entailed.

Interestingly, the earliest examples of mummification in ancient Egypt were completely accidental. Because of Egypt's arid desert environment, the bodies of Predynastic or Early Dynastic Egyptians would often be unintentionally preserved, their shallow pit graves allowing the corpses to be dried out and preserved by the dry, sandy climate. The dead began to be purposely mummified during the Old Kingdom period, and mummification remained a standard funerary practice throughout the New and Middle Kingdoms, continuing into the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Some of the most well-preserved mummies ever discovered have originated from the 18th and 19th Dynasties, and include those of Thutmose I, Thutmose II, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Seti I, Ramesses II, and, most famously, the boy king Tutankhamun. Some animals were also mummified, often for religious purposes, including cats, ibises, and sacred bulls.

For a standard royal or elite burial, the mummification process took 70 days. Each step was presided over by a group of highly-trained priests, who possessed specialist knowledge of both the religious/magical incantations that accompanied the mummification process as well as anatomy. During the first stage of preparations, all internal organs (excluding the heart) were removed via an incision made in the left side of the body and preserved separately. The liver, intestines, stomach, and lungs were placed in four specially-designated receptacles, called "canopic jars," each with lids bearing either human heads or (during the later dynasties of the New Kingdom) depictions of the four sons of Horus (the head of a jackal guarded the stomach, a baboon the lungs, a falcon the intestines, and a man the liver). These canopic jars would then be buried alongside the mummy and its other funerary equipment in its tomb. The brain matter was removed by inserting a hook through the corpse's nostrils and carefully pulling out small pieces of tissue at a time. The body was then covered and filled with natron salt, which, over the course of many weeks, completely dried it out. The empty chest cavity was later stuffed with linen to give it a more lifelike shape, and the wrapping process began.

Each mummy required hundreds of yards of linen wrapping. The priests were extremely meticulous when it came to this stage of the mummification process, intricately wrapping each of the mummy's fingers and toes and including special protective amulets in each layer of bandages (including scarabs). Throughout the wrapping process, the body was also covered in layers of resin to further aid in preserving it. The mummy would then be adorned with jewelry and a death mask (in the Roman Period, this mask was often replaced by a realistic painted portrait of the deceased), and placed in a series of increasingly large and ornate coffins/sarcophagi. Because of the complex nature of ancient Egyptian funerals and the preparation of the tomb/funerary equipment, I'll be leaving those subjects to be discussed another day.

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