Mummy History

Mummy History

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A mummy is a person or animal whose body has been dried or otherwise preserved after death. When people think of a mummy, they often envision the early Hollywood-era versions of human forms wrapped in layers upon layers of bandages, arms outstretched as they slowly shuffle forward. Mummies may not literally rise from their ancient tombs and attack, but they’re quite real and have a fascinating history.

What are mummies?

The practice of preserving a body as a mummy is widespread across the globe and throughout time. Many civilizations—Incan, Australian aboriginal, Aztec, African, ancient European and others—have practiced some type of mummification for thousands of years to honor and preserve the bodies of the dead.

Mummification rituals varied by culture, and it’s thought some cultures mummified all their citizens. Others reserved the rite of passage for the wealthy or people of status. Since most bacteria can’t thrive in extreme temperatures, exposing a corpse to the sun, fire or freezing temperatures was an uncomplicated way to create a mummy.

Some mummies happened by accident. Take, for instance, the Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato, a collection of over 100 mummies found buried in above-ground crypts in Mexico. Those bodies weren’t mummified on purpose. It’s thought either extreme heat or the area’s rich geological stores of sulfur and other minerals spurred the mummification process.

Some Buddhist monks practiced self-mummification by spending years starving their bodies and only eating foods that promoted decay. Once their body fat was gone, they spent a few more years drinking a poisonous sap to cause vomiting to get rid of bodily fluids. The poison also made the body an unsavory future host for corpse-eating bugs.

When the time was right, the monks were buried alive to await death and mummification. Death came quickly, but self-mummification seldom worked.

Egyptian Mummies

No matter how a body was mummified, the end game was the preservation of as much skin tissue as possible—and the priests of ancient Egypt are considered the experts on the process. Egypt’s arid climate made it easy to dry out and mummify a corpse, but the Egyptians routinely used a more elaborate process to ensure the dead experienced safe passage to the afterlife.

The mummification process for royalty and the wealthy often included:

  • washing the body
  • removing all organs except the heart and placing them in jars
  • packing the body and organs in salt to remove moisture
  • embalming the body with resins and essential oils such as myrrh, cassia, juniper oil and cedar oil
  • wrapping the embalmed corpse in several layers of linen

Ancient Egyptians of all walks of life mummified deceased family members, but the process wasn’t as elaborate for the poor. According to Egyptologist Salima Ikram, some corpses were simply filled with juniper oil to dissolve organs before burial.

The mummies of pharaohs were placed in ornate stone coffins called sarcophaguses. They were then buried in elaborate tombs filled with everything they’d need for the afterlife such as vehicles, tools, food, wine, perfume, and household items. Some pharaohs were even buried with pets and servants.

Mummies as Medicine

According to a 1927 abstract published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, medicinal preparations made from powdered mummies were popular between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries. During that time, countless mummies were disentombed and burned to meet the demand for “mummy medicine.”

The interest in mummies as medicine was based on the supposed medicinal properties of bitumen, a type of asphalt from the Dead Sea. It was thought mummies were embalmed with bitumen, but that was rarely the case; most were embalmed with resins.

Mummies Go Mainstream

Perhaps the best-known mummy in modern history is King Tutankhamun, commonly known as King Tut. His tomb and mummified body were discovered in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter. It was an exhilarating find yet destined to be overshadowed by several unexplained deaths.

According to folklore, disturbing a mummy’s tomb leads to death. This superstition didn’t rattle Carter, however, nor stop him from exhuming Tut’s tomb. Still, when several people involved in his expedition died early of unnatural causes, the story was sensationalized by the media—even though the so-called curse spared Carter’s life.

Mummies became more than religious symbols of the ancient world in the early 20th century with the debut of Bram Stoker’s novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars, which featured them as supernatural villains. But it was Boris Karloff’s portrayal of a mummy in the 1932 movie, The Mummy, that made mummies mainstream monsters.

Later movies such as The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Curse portrayed mummies as the heavily-bandaged, mute beings they’re known as today. Fictional mummies can’t feel pain and, like other horror monsters, are hard to kill. The most effective way to send them to a permanent demise is to set them on fire.

Despite being real—and creepy—mummies don’t have the same notoriety as zombies, werewolves and vampires. That may change as Hollywood releases new mummy movies with spine-chilling storylines and unnerving special effects.


Mummies. NOVA.
Mummies Back in Action: A Regenerated Classic Monster. Central Rappahannock Regional Library.
Mummification. Science Museum, London.
Mummy as a Drug. U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
The Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. NOVA.
Accidental mummies: Mexican villagers are preserved.
Mummy as a Drug. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine.

The Pedro Mountain Mummy

A celebrity might have a brief career, or be famous for decades, even living on in public memory after death. But has an infant ever achieved this status?

The Pedro Mountain Mummy was discovered in June 1934 by two gold prospectors in the Pedro Mountains approximately 60 miles southwest of Casper, Wyo. Contrary to the mythology of the nearly eight decades that have passed since its discovery, the mummy was almost certainly a human baby, not a tiny adult from the Pliocene Epoch or from the race of Little People of American Indian lore.

Photographs and a signed affidavit leave little doubt that the discovery itself was real. The affidavit, dated Nov. 13, 1936 and signed by Cecil Main, one of the prospectors, states that the mummy was "found in a sealed cave, on a rock ledge about two and one half feet from the ground…there was nothing else in the cave." The affidavit further states that the mummy was "now owned by Homer F. Sherrill, and located in the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois." The affidavit was sworn in Scotts Bluff County, Neb., and subsequently recorded in Hot Springs County, Wyo., on Aug. 16, 1943.

From the time of its discovery until it was lost in 1950, the mummy traveled a path that will probably never be possible to document fully. An article by Penelope Purdy in the Casper Star-Tribune dated July 21, 1979, states that the two prospectors "took the mummy back to Casper with them as a curiosity. Although they were ridiculed for perpetrating a hoax, the body made the rounds of local sideshows in a glass bottle. . . ."

Lou Musser wrote in a March 30, 1950, article for the Casper Tribune-Herald that the mummy for years “has been the center of much controversy locally." Musser notes that before it was purchased by Ivan Goodman, a Casper businessman, it was displayed by a prior owner in the Jones Drugstore in Meeteetse, Wyo. Although Musser does not name either the Meeteetse owner's name nor the price Goodman paid, Purdy mentions a selling price of "several thousand dollars." In a related article dated July 24, 1979, Purdy names the Meeteetse owner, Floyd Jones.

If the affidavit was dated in the same year as the discovery, both Purdy's 1979 article, as well as Musser's from 1950, have errors. Purdy states that the mummy was found in October 1932, according to "local legend." Musser reports that a sheepherder discovered it, naming no date.

To further confuse matters, an Oct. 21, 1977 newspaper article, "McAuley's Wyoming," also from the Casper Star-Tribune and obviously written somewhat tongue-in-cheek, claims, "Goodman…said he bought the Pedro Mountain Man from the sheepherder." This article also mentions that the sheepherder discovered it. This mythical sheepherder is not named in any of the articles that refer to him.

Even the sworn claim that the mummy was at the Field Museum is open to question. Archivist Armand Esai notes that the Field Museum has no record of the mummy's presence during that time. The item still could have been there on loan or for identification, but because it was not part of the museum's official collection, the mummy was not listed in the records.

Thus, facts discovered after the recording of the affidavit are sketchy, but Ivan Goodman's ownership by 1950 is certain. This was confirmed by his son Dixon Goodman of Casper. The elder Goodman took the mummy to Dr. Harry Shapiro, curator of biological anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Shapiro examined it, took X-rays and sent the films around that time to George Gill, then professor of biological anthropology at the University of Wyoming.

Gill has confirmed that he received those X-rays and that he and Shapiro agreed that the mummy was almost certainly a human baby, either stillborn or dead shortly after birth. This child probably died of anencephaly, the congenital absence of a large part of the brain.

Later in 1950, when Goodman traveled to New York a second time, he took the mummy to a man named in three articles as Leonard Wadler: Purdy's July 24, 1979 article, mentioned above, plus another by her dated Oct. 9, 1990 and one by John Bonar in the 62nd Annual Wyoming Chronicle, dated March 23, 1980. Bonar adds that a Casper librarian "claims that…Wadler…acquired…[the mummy] for study…" All three articles state that shortly after taking the mummy to Wadler, Goodman was taken ill and died. The mummy was never returned to Goodman's family, and has not been seen again.

This absence of 63 years has not daunted mummy-seekers nor believers in little people or in human pygmy lore. Well before 1950, the sensational press had begun, exemplified by an Aug. 17, 1941, Milwaukee Journal article, "Did a Race of Pygmies Once Live in America?" According to this account, the mummy was a tiny man, 65 years old at the time of death. This seems to have been the consensus before the findings of Shapiro and Gill.

The Milwaukee Journal stated, "discernible by X-ray is the food in the stomach, which appears to have been raw meat. The teeth in the front of the mouth are pointed and of the flesh-eating variety." More compelling yet is the groan of despair supposedly uttered by one of the gold prospectors, upon finding the mummy: "'The curse of the Pedro Chain is upon us. Looks like our number is up. . . .'"

Like the child's game where everyone sits in a circle and whispers into his neighbor's ear the words he thought he heard whispered into his own ear, the story continued to change and grow. For example, In "Wyoming's Mystery Mummy," a chapter in Stranger Than Science, published in 1959, author Frank Edwards observes that the mummy's "twisted lips [were] set in a sardonic half grin." This author also repeats the incorrect discovery date of October 1932.

Wyoming history enthusiast Robert David, in a March 11, 1962 Casper Tribune-Herald and Star article, also reports the find date as October 1932. David cites the Pedro Mountain Mummy as a source of "present knowledge of…little people," recounting several legends told by old Shoshone and Arapaho chiefs. One legend states that "…a large mob of pygmies…attacked us viciously, and threatened to kill us all."

An Internet article, "Little People and the Pedro Mountain Mummy," explains that many believe little people are legends, names the Pedro Mountain Mummy and refers to Shoshone legends that contain the belief that little people attack "with tiny bows and poisoned arrows."

The mummy, if it ever turns up again, would be subject to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act as it is almost certainly the body of an American Indian child taken from a grave. NAGPRA, as the act is called, provides a process for the return of certain American Indian cultural items, including human remains and funerary objects, to the lineal descendants or culturally affiliated tribes whenever possible, and particularly when the items were found unexpectedly on federal land, as is most likely the case here.

In the early 1990s, interest in the mummy remained strong. A popular episode of the television series, Unsolved Mysteries, filmed in 1994, featured the story and included an interview with Dr. Gill. As a result, a Wyoming rancher brought him another mummy, which was found in 1929 or thereabouts in the Pedro Mountain area. Gill sent it to the Denver Children's Hospital and also examined it himself, obtaining X-rays, a DNA sample and a radiocarbon date. These results, Gill said, "confirmed everything that I had ever thought” about the Pedro Mountain Mummy, including the diagnosis of anencephaly.

Is the Pedro Mountain Mummy gone for good? It seems likely, and with no immediate prospect of testing and study, those carried away by myths and speculation will continue in the spirit of Irish poet William Allingham's The Fairies:

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men.

Mummies as medicine

Ancient Egyptian mummies did not escape this treatment either and were seen both as potent vessels of power and as containing a substance called bitumen, which was thought to contain healing properties. Some of our earlier references to this come from Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who, as is standard practice for homeopathic medicine, recommended it for just about everything. It could be used to treat headaches, epilepsy, and even blood clots according to the ancient sources, and mummies appeared to be an easy source of bitumen since it was thought to have been used in the embalming process. Over time, however, the importance of the bitumen was forgotten and the mummies themselves were seen as the ones with the true healing power.

Bitumen is better known by another name today — asphalt. As we now know, this is highly toxic and even carcinogenic, but to the medieval Europeans it was a wonder drug. Unfortunately for them (or perhaps luckily), Egyptian mummies don’t typically contain bitumen and another form of resin was used in the mummification process instead.

However, the early associations were so strong that once mummies became more and more scarce, thus driving up the price, ‘lesser mummies’, those of slaves or commoners, would have bitumen artificially added to them. Alexandria was the home of these practices and there are even records of executed criminals being mummified and aged to fulfil the growing the demand, before being shipped off to Europe as genuine ancient Egyptian mummies. Apothecaries of the time were right in bemoaning the quality of these lesser mummies then, just not for the reasons they imagined.

While it may seem strange that medieval Europe believed the same thing that was used to caulk ships had healing properties, we can find references to it in multiple sources and it even appears in some of history’s greatest literature. Shakespeare references it multiple times, notably in Othello and Macbeth, where in the latter it’s referred to as ‘witch’s mummy.’ Bitumen even influenced language, with the word ‘mummy’ ultimately being derived from the Persian word ‘mūm’, meaning ‘wax’.

The History of Mummification in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians followed the tradition of mummification for thousands of years. (Image: matrioshkal/Shutterstock)

The Practice of Mummification in Ancient Egypt

Mummification was practiced in Egypt for 3,000 years. But not all mummies were the same. Each mummy was different. What was the reason for this difference?

Partially, it was due to trial and error. It was a process and over time the quality of mummification improved. It was similar to automobiles. Just compare the cars of today to those from a century or half century ago. In fact, there is no comparison.

Over a long period, the mummification techniques changed and evolved and the end product became far superior to previous eras. Simply stated, ancient Egyptians got better at the craft of mummifying.

However, it was more complicated than that. It was by no means straight forward. Indeed, the progress was quite uneven. Sometimes they got better at it, and a few years later, the quality of the mummies deteriorated and got noticeably worse.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Old Kingdom Mummies

It is important to point out that the Old Kingdom is one of the most glorious eras in ancient Egyptian civilization. It is in fact the era of pyramid building. It is the era of some of the most famous kings, Sneferu and Khufu, in ancient Egypt.

Over a long period, the mummification techniques changed and evolved. (Image: Mikhail Zahranichny/Shutterstock)

A detailed assessment of Old Kingdom mummies reveals that the mummification process wasn’t really intended to preserve the body. It seems they were almost attempting to make a statue.

If one inspects the Old Kingdom mummies of fairly wealthy people, very often, one will see a layer of bandages that have been coated with plaster. And the features of the deceased are painted on the plaster, or sometimes carved into it. Why did they paint or carve the features of the deceased on the plaster?

The Preservation of the Corpse

Perhaps the people of the Old Kingdom were attempting to preserve the corpse. In case the body decays or is destroyed, at least, there is a plaster coating that provides a hint of how a famous or wealthy person looked like when they were alive.

So to summarize, Old Kingdom mummies were not works of master craft, to say the least. The mummification process was sloppy, superficial, and anything but thorough. They weren’t really dehydrating the bodies, removing the brain and vital organs, etc. The idea was just to have an outer shell that looked pretty good.

The Immaculate Mummification of Queen Hetepheres

In another era during the Old Kingdom when Sneferu was the pharaoh, exceptionally high-quality mummies were made. The earliest one unearthed belongs to Queen Hetepheres, the wife of King Sneferu. She was indeed a very important woman in the Old Kingdom, not just because she was married to a king.

Queen Hetepheres’s mummified body had a “canopic chest”, meaning her internal organs were removed and placed in four containers made of alabaster that had liquid solutions of natron in them. Natron is comprised of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chloride. In layman’s terms, it was basically baking powder and table salt.

To conclude, there were all kinds of mummies in ancient Egypt. They had different shapes and sizes. The calculated guess is that the quality of the mummy depended on what the person could afford.

As a consequence, especially when it came to commoners and those not belonging to the royal family and the aristocracy, the quality of the mummification varied considerably. But there were several certain constants. For example, the internal organs were taken out through a slit in the abdomen.

By just looking at a mummy, we get to know so much about life in ancient Egypt.

Common Questions about Mummification in Ancient Egypt

The mummies of fairly wealthy people in the Old Kingdom had a layer of bandages that were coated with plaster. The features of the deceased were painted on the plaster, or sometimes carved into it. The plaster coating provided a hint of how a famous or wealthy person looked like when they were alive.

Each era in ancient Egypt followed a different technique of mummification. There were times when the mummies were of high quality and then there were other times when the mummies were nothing more than a layer of bandages that were coated with plaster. Also, it depended on class and wealth. The richer or more powerful you were, the better the mummification process.

In another era during the Old Kingdom when Sneferu was the pharaoh, exceptionally high-quality mummies were made.

Apparently, the quality of the mummy depended on what the person could afford. Therefore, when it came to commoners and those not belonging to the royal family and the aristocracy, the quality of the mummification varied considerably.


Although no writing survived from the Predynastic Period in Egypt (c. 6000 – c. 3150 BCE), scholars believe the importance of the physical body and its preservation originated there. This likely explains why people of that time did not follow the common practice of cremation but rather buried the dead. Some also believe they may have feared the bodies would rise again if mistreated after death. [3]

Early bodies were buried in simple, shallow oval pits, with a few burial goods. Sometimes multiple people and animals were placed in the same grave. Over time, graves became more complex. At one point, bodies were placed in a wicker basket, but eventually bodies were places in wooden or terracotta coffins. The latest tombs Egyptians made were sarcophagi. These graves contained burial goods like jewellery, food, games and sharpened splint. [4]

Between the Predynastic Period and the Ptolemaic dynasty, there was a constant focus on eternal life and the certainty of personal existence beyond death. This belief in an afterlife is reflected in the burial of grave goods in tombs. The Egyptians' beliefs in an afterlife became known throughout the ancient world by way of trade and cultural transmission having an influence on other civilizations and religions. Notably, this belief became well known by way of the Silk Road. It was believed that individuals were admitted into the afterlife on the basis of being able to serve a purpose there. For example, the pharaoh was thought to be allowed into the afterlife because of his role as a ruler of Ancient Egypt, which would be a purpose translated into his afterlife.

Human sacrifices found in early royal tombs reinforce the idea of serving a purpose in the afterlife. Those sacrificed were probably meant to serve the pharaoh in his afterlife. Eventually, figurines and wall paintings begin to replace human victims. [5] Some of these figurines may have been created to resemble certain people, so they could follow the pharaoh after their lives ended.

Not only did the lower classes rely on the pharaoh's favor, but also the noble classes. They believed that when he died, the pharaoh became a sort of god who could bestow upon certain individuals the ability to have an afterlife. This belief existed from the predynastic period through the Old Kingdom.

Although many spells from the predeceasing texts were carried over, the new Coffin Texts also had additional new spells added, along with slight changes made to make this new funerary text more relatable to the nobility. [6] In the First Intermediate Period, however, the importance of the pharaoh declined. Funerary texts, previously restricted to royal use, became more widely available. The pharaoh was no longer a god-king in the sense that only he was allowed in the next life due to his status here, now he was merely the ruler of the population who upon his death would be leveled down towards the plane of the mortals. [7]

Prehistory, Earliest Burials Edit

The first funerals in Egypt are known from the villages of Omari and Maadi in the north, near present-day Cairo. The people of these villages buried their dead in a simple, round grave with a pot. The body was neither treated nor arranged in a particular way which would change later in the historical period. Without any written evidence, there is little to provide information about contemporary beliefs concerning the afterlife except for the regular inclusion of a single pot in the grave. Given later customs, the pot was probably intended to hold food for the deceased. [8]

Predynastic Period, Development of Customs Edit

Funerary customs were developed during the Predynastic period from those of the Prehistoric Period. At first, people excavated round graves with one pot in the Badarian Period (4400–3800 BC), continuing the tradition of Omari and Maadi cultures. By the end of the Predynastic period, there were increasing numbers of objects deposited with the body in rectangular graves, and there is growing evidence of rituals practiced by Egyptians of the Naqada II Period (3650–3300 BC). At this point, bodies were regularly arranged in a crouched or fetal position with the face toward either the east the rising sun or the west (which in this historical period was the land of the dead). Artists painted jars with funeral processions and perhaps ritual dancing. Figures of bare-breasted women with birdlike faces and their legs concealed under skirts also appeared. Some graves were much richer in goods than others, demonstrating the beginnings of social stratification. Gender differences in burial emerged with the inclusion of weapons in men's graves and cosmetic palettes in women's graves. [9]

By 3,600 BC, Egyptians had begun to mummify the dead, wrapping them in linen bandages with embalming oils (conifer resin and aromatic plant extracts). [10] [11]

Early Dynastic Period, Tombs and Coffins Edit

By the First Dynasty, some Egyptians were wealthy enough to build tombs over their burials rather than placing their bodies in simple pit graves dug into the sand. The rectangular, mudbrick tomb with an underground burial chamber called a mastaba developed in this period. These tombs had niched walls, a style of building called the palace-façade motif because the walls imitated those surrounding the palace of the king. Since commoners as well as kings, however, had such tombs, the architecture suggests that in death, some wealthy people did achieve an elevated status. Later in the historical period, it is certain that the deceased was associated with the god of the dead, Osiris.

Grave goods expanded to include furniture, jewelry, and games as well as the weapons, cosmetic palettes, and food supplies in decorated jars known earlier, in the Predynastic period. Now, however, in the richest tombs, grave goods numbered in the thousands. Only the newly invented coffins for the body were made specifically for the tomb. There is also some inconclusive evidence for mummification. Other objects in the tombs that had been used during daily life suggest that Egyptians already in the First Dynasty anticipated needing in the next life. Further continuity from this life into the next can be found in the positioning of tombs: those persons who served the king during their lifetimes chose burials close to their lord. The use of stela in front of the tomb began in the First Dynasty, indicating a desire to individualize the tomb with the deceased's name. [12]

Old Kingdom, Pyramids and Mummification Edit

In the Old Kingdom, kings first built pyramids for their tombs surrounded by stone mastaba tombs for their high officials. The fact that most high officials were also royal relatives suggests another motivation for such placement: these complexes were also family cemeteries.

Among the elite, bodies were mummified, wrapped in linen bandages, sometimes covered with molded plaster, and placed in stone sarcophagi or plain wooden coffins. At the end of the Old Kingdom, mummy masks in cartonnage (linen soaked in plaster, modeled and painted) also appeared. Canopic jars now held their internal organs. Amulets of gold, faience, and carnelian first appeared in various shapes to protect different parts of the body. There is also the first evidence of inscriptions inside the coffins of the elite during the Old Kingdom. Often, reliefs of everyday items were etched onto the walls supplemented grave goods, which made them available through their representation.

The new false door was a non-functioning stone sculpture of a door, found either inside the chapel or on the outside of the mastaba it served as a place to make offerings and recite prayers for the deceased. Statues of the deceased were now included in tombs and used for ritual purposes. Burial chambers of some private people received their first decorations in addition to the decoration of the chapels. At the end of the Old Kingdom, the burial chamber decorations depicted offerings, but not people. [13]

First Intermediate Period, Regional Variation Edit

The political situation in the First Intermediate Period, with many centers of power, is reflected in the many local styles of art and burial at this time. The many regional styles for decorating coffins make their origins easy to distinguish from each other. For example, some coffins have one-line inscriptions, and many styles include the depiction of Wadjet eyes (the human eye with the markings of a falcon). There are also regional variations in the hieroglyphs used to decorate coffins.

Occasionally men had tools and weapons in their graves, while some women had jewelry and cosmetic objects such as mirrors. Grindstones were sometimes included in women's tombs, perhaps to be considered a tool for food preparation in the next world, just as the weapons in men's tombs imply men's assignment to a role in fighting. [14]

Middle Kingdom, New Tomb Contents Edit

Burial customs in the Middle Kingdom reflect some of the political trends of this period. During the Eleventh Dynasty, tombs were cut into the mountains of Thebes surrounding the king's tomb or in local cemeteries in Upper and Middle Egypt Thebes was the native city of the Eleventh Dynasty kings, and they preferred to be buried there. But the Twelfth Dynasty, high officials served the kings of a new family now ruling from the north in Lisht these kings and their high officials preferred burial in a mastaba near the pyramids belonging to their masters. Moreover, the difference in topography between Thebes and Lisht led to a difference in tomb type: in the north, nobles build mastaba tombs on the flat desert plains, while in the south, local dignitaries continued to excavate tombs in the mountain.

For those of ranks lower than royal courtiers during the Eleventh Dynasty, tombs were simpler. Coffins could be simple wooden boxes with the body either mummified and wrapped in linen or simply wrapped without mummification, and the addition of a cartonnage mummy mask, a custom that continued until the Graeco-Roman period. Some tombs included wooded shoes and a simple statue near the body. In one burial there were only twelve loaves of bread, a leg of beef, and a jar of beer for food offerings. Jewelry could be included but only rarely were objects of great value found in non-elite graves. Some burials continued to include the wooden models that were popular during the First Intermediate Period. Wooden models of boats, scenes of food production, craftsmen and workshops, and professions such as scribes or soldiers have been found in the tombs of this period.

Some rectangular coffins of the Twelfth Dynasty have short inscriptions and representations of the most important offerings the deceased required. For men, the objects depicted were weapons and symbols of office as well as food. Women's coffins depicted mirrors, sandals, and jars containing food and drink. Some coffins included texts that were later versions of the royal Pyramid Texts.

Another kind of faience model of the deceased as a mummy seems to anticipate the use of shabti figurines (also called shawabti or an ushabti) later in the Twelfth Dynasty. These early figurines do not have the text directing the figure to work in the place of the deceased that is found in later figurines. The richest people had stone figurines that seem to anticipate shabtis, though some scholars have seen them as mummy substitutes rather than servant figures.

In the later Twelfth Dynasty, significant changes occurred in burials, perhaps reflecting administrative changes enacted by King Senwosret III (1836–1818 BC). The body was now regularly placed on its back, rather than its side as had been done for thousands of years. Coffin texts and wooden models disappeared from new tombs of the period while heart scarabs and figurines shaped like mummies were now often included in burials, as they would be for the remainder of Egyptian history. Coffin decoration was simplified. The Thirteenth Dynasty saw another change in decoration. Different motifs were found in the north and south, a reflection of decentralized government power at the time. There was also a marked increase in the number of burials in one tomb, a rare occurrence in earlier periods. The reuse of one tomb by a family over generations seems to have occurred when wealth was more equitably spread. [15]

Second Intermediate Period, Foreigner Burials Edit

Known graves from the Second Intermediate Period reveal the presence of non-Egyptians buried in the country. In the north, graves associated with the Hyksos, a western Semitic people ruling the north from the northeast delta, include small mudbrick structures containing the body, pottery vessels, a dagger in a men's graves and often a nearby donkey burial. Simple pan-shaped graves in various parts of the country are thought to belong to Nubian soldiers. Such graves reflect very ancient customs and feature shallow, round pits, bodies contracted and minimal food offerings in pots. The occasional inclusion of identifiable Egyptian materials from the Second Intermediate Period provides the only marks distinguishing these burials from those of Predynastic and even earlier periods. [16]

New Kingdom, New Object Purposes Edit

The majority of elite tombs in the New Kingdom were rock-cut chambers. Kings were buried in multi-roomed, rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings and no longer in pyramids. Priests conducted funerary rituals for them in stone temples built on the west bank of the Nile opposite of Thebes. From the current evidence, the Eighteenth Dynasty appears to be the last period in which Egyptians regularly included multiple objects from their daily lives in their tombs beginning in the Nineteenth Dynasty, tombs contained fewer items from daily life and included objects made especially for the next world. Thus, the change from the Eighteenth to the Nineteenth Dynasties formed a dividing line in burial traditions: the Eighteenth Dynasty more closely remembered the immediate past in its customs whereas the Nineteenth Dynasty anticipated the customs of the Late Period.

People of the elite ranks in the Eighteenth Dynasty placed furniture as well as clothing and other items in their tombs, objects they undoubtedly used during life on earth. Beds, headrests, chairs, stools, leather sandals, jewelry, musical instruments, and wooden storage chests were present in these tombs. While all of the objects listed were for the elite, many poor people did not put anything beyond weapons and cosmetics into their tombs.

No elite tombs survive unplundered from the Ramesside period. In this period, artists decorated tombs belonging to the elite with more scene of religious events, rather than the everyday scene that had been popular since the Old Kingdom. The funeral itself, the funerary meal with multiple relatives, the worshipping of the gods, even figures in the underworld were subjects in elite tomb decorations. The majority of objects found in the Ramesside period tombs were made for the afterlife. Aside from the jewelry, which could have been used also during life, objects in Ramesside tombs were manufactured for the next world. [17]

Third Intermediate Period Edit

Although the political structure of the New Kingdom collapsed at the end of the Twentieth Dynasty, the majority of burials in the Twenty-first Dynasty directly reflect developments from the earlier period. At the beginning of this time, reliefs resembled those from the Ramesside period. Only at the very end of the Third Intermediate Period did new funerary practices of the Late Period begin to be seen.

Little is known of tombs from this period. The very lack of decorations in tombs seems to have led to much more elaborate decoration of coffins. The remaining grave goods of the period show fairly cheaply made shabtis, even when the owner was a queen or a princess. [18]

Late Period, Monumentality and Return to Traditions Edit

Burials in the Late Period could make use of large-scale, temple-like tombs built for the non-royal elite for the first time. But the majority of tombs in this period were in shafts sunk into the desert floor. In addition to fine statuary and reliefs reflecting the style of the Old Kingdom, the majority of grave goods were specially made for the tomb. Coffins continued to bear religious texts and scenes. Some shafts were personalized by the use of stela with the deceased prayers and name on it. Shabtis in faience for all classes are known. Canopic jars, though often nonfunctional, continued to be included. Staves and scepters representing the deceased's office in life were often present as well. A wooden figure of either the god Osiris [19] or of the composite deity Ptah-Sokar-Osiris could be found, [20] [21] along with heart scarabs, both gold and faience examples of djed-columns, Eye of Horus amulets, figures of gods, and images of the deceased's ba. Tools for the tomb's ritual called the "opening of the mouth" as well as "magical bricks" at the four compass points could be included. [22]

Ptolemaic Period, Hellenistic Influences Edit

Following Egypt's conquest by Alexander the Great, the country was ruled by the descendants of Ptolemy, one of his generals. The Macedonian Greek family fostered a culture that promoted both Hellenistic and ancient Egyptian ways of life: while many Greek-speaking people living in Alexandria followed the customs of mainland Greece, others adopted Egyptian customs, while Egyptians continued to follow their own already ancient customs.

Very few Ptolemaic tombs are known. Fine temple statuary of the period suggests the possibility of tomb sculpture and offering tables. Egyptian elite burials still made use of stone sarcophagi. Books of the Dead and amulets were also still popular. [23]

Roman Period, Roman Influences Edit

The Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC, ending the rule of the last and most famous member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra VII. During Roman rule, an elite hybrid burial style developed incorporating both Egyptian and Roman elements.

Some people were mummified and wrapped in linen bandages. The front of the mummy was often painted with a selection of traditional Egyptian symbols. Mummy masks in either traditional Egyptian style or Roman style could be added to the mummies. Another possibility was a Roman-style mummy portrait, executed in encaustic (pigment suspended in wax) on a wooden panel. Sometimes the feet of the mummy was covered. An alternative to this was a complete shroud with Egyptian motifs but a portrait in the Roman style. Tombs of the elite could also include fine jewelry. [24]

Greek historians Herodotus (5th century BC) and Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) provide the most complete surviving evidence of how ancient Egyptians approached the preservation of a dead body. [25] Before embalming, or preserving the dead body as to delay or prevent decay, mourners, especially if the deceased had high status, covered their faces with mud, and paraded around town while beating their chests. [25] If the wife of a high-status male died, her body was not embalmed until three or four days have passed, because this prevented abuse of the corpse. [25] In the case that someone drowned or was attacked, embalming was carried out immediately on their body, in a sacred and careful manner. This kind of death was viewed as venerated, and only priests were permitted to touch the body. [25]

After embalming, the mourners may have carried out a ritual involving an enactment of judgement during the Hour Vigil, with volunteers to play the role of Osiris and his enemy brother Set, as well as the gods Isis, Nephthys, Horus, Anubis, and Thoth. [26] As the tale goes, Set was envious of his brother Osiris for being granted the throne before him, so he plotted to kill him. Osiris's wife, Isis, battled back and forth with Set to gain possession of Osiris's body, and through this struggle, Osiris's spirit was lost. [27] Nonetheless, Osiris resurrected and was reinstated as a god. [28] In addition to the reenactment of the judgement of Osiris, numerous funeral processions were conducted throughout the nearby necropolis, which symbolized different sacred journeys. [26]

The funeral procession to the tomb generally included cattle pulling the body in a sledge-type of carrier, with friends and family to follow. During the procession, the priest burned incense and poured milk before the dead body. [26] Upon arrival to the tomb, and essentially the next life, the priest performed the Opening of the mouth ceremony on the deceased. The deceased's head was turned towards the south, and the body was imagined to be a statue replica of the deceased. Opening the mouth of the deceased symbolized allowing the person to speak and defend themselves during the judgement process. Goods were then offered to the deceased to conclude the ceremony. [26]

Embalming Edit

The preservation of a dead body was critical if the deceased wanted a chance at acceptance into the afterlife. Within the Ancient Egyptian concept of the soul, ka, which represented vitality, leaves the body once the person dies. [29] Only if the body is embalmed in a specific fashion will ka return to the deceased body, and rebirth will take place. [25] The embalmers received the body after death, and in a systematized manner, prepared it for mummification. The family and friends of the deceased had a choice of options that ranged in price for the preparation of the body, similar to the process at modern funeral homes. Next, the embalmers escorted the body to ibw, translated to “place of purification,” a tent in which the body was washed, and then per nefer, “the House of Beauty,” where mummification took place. [25]

Mummification process Edit

In order to live for all eternity and be presented in front of Osiris, the body of the deceased had to be preserved by mummification, so that the soul could reunite with it, and take pleasure in the afterlife. The main process of mummification was preserving the body by dehydrating it using natron, a natural salt found in Wadi Natrun. The body was drained of any liquids and left with the skin, hair and muscles preserved. [30] The mummification process is said to have taken up to seventy days. During this process, special priests worked as embalmers as they treated and wrapped the body of the deceased in preparation for burial.

The process of mummification was available for anyone who could afford it. It was believed that even those who could not afford this process could still enjoy the afterlife with the right reciting of spells. Mummification existed in three different processes, ranging from most expensive, moderately expensive, and most simplistic, or cheapest. [25] The most classic, common, and most expensive method of mummification dates back to the 18th Dynasty. The first step was to remove the internal organs and liquid so that the body would not decay. After being laid out on a table, the embalmers took out the brain through a process named excerebration by inserting a metal hook through the nostril, breaking through it into the brain. They removed as much as they could with the hook, and the rest they liquefied with drugs and drained out. [25] They threw out the brain because they thought that the heart did all the thinking. The next step was to remove the internal organs, the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines, and place them in canopic jars with lids shaped like the heads of the protective deities, the four sons of Horus: Imsety, Hapy, Duamutef, and Qebhseneuf. Imsety was human-headed, and guarded the liver Hapy was ape-headed, and guarded the lungs Duamutef was jackal-headed, and guarded the stomach Qebhseneuf was hawk-headed, and guarded the small and large intestines. [25] Sometimes the four canopic jars were placed into a canopic chest, and buried with the mummified body. A canopic chest resembled a "miniature coffin" and was intricately painted. The Ancient Egyptians believed that by burying the deceased with their organs, they may rejoin with them in the afterlife. [26] Other times, the organs were cleaned and cleansed, and then returned into the body. [25] The body cavity was then rinsed and cleaned with wine and an array of spices. The body was sewn up with aromatic plants and spices left inside. [25] The heart stayed in the body, because in the hall of judgement, it would be weighed against the feather of Maat. After the body was washed with wine, it was stuffed with bags of natron. The dehydration process took 40 days. [27]

The second part of the process took 30 days. This was the time where the deceased turned into a semi divine being, and all that was left in the body from the first part was removed, followed by applying first wine and then oils. The oils were for ritual purposes, as well as for preventing the limbs and bones from breaking while being wrapped. The body was sometimes colored with a golden resin, which protected the body from bacteria and insects. Additionally, this practice was based on the belief that divine beings had flesh of gold. Next, the body was wrapped in linen cut into strips with amulets while a priest recited prayers and burned incense. The linen was adhered to the body using gum, opposed to a glue. [25] The dressing provided the body physical protection from the elements, and depending on how wealthy the deceased's family was, the deceased could be dressed with an ornamented funeral mask and shroud. [25] Special care was given to the head, hands, feet, and genitals, as contemporary mummies reveal extra wrappings and paddings in these areas. [31] Mummies were identified via small, wooden name-tags tied typically around the deceased's neck. [25] The 70-day process is connected to Osiris and the length the star Sothis was absent from the sky. [28]

The second, moderately expensive option for mummification did not involve an incision into the abdominal cavity or the removal of the internal organs. Instead, the embalmers injected the oil of a cedar tree into the body, which prevented liquid from leaving the body. The body was then laid in natron for a specific number of days. The oil was then drained out of the body, and with it came the internal organs, the stomach and the intestines, which were liquefied by the cedar oil. The flesh dissolved in the natron, which left only skin and bones left of the deceased body. The remains are given back to the family. [25] The cheapest, most basic method of mummification, which was often chosen by the poor, involved purging out the deceased's internal organs, and then laying the body in natron for 70 days. The body was then given back to the family. [25]

Animal mummification Edit

Animals were mummified in Ancient Egypt for many reasons. Household pets that held a special important to their owners were buried alongside them. However, animals were not only viewed as pets but as incarnations of the gods. Therefore, these animals were buried to honor ancient Egyptian deities. Some animal mummifications were performed to serve as sacred offerings to the gods who often took the form of animals such as cats, frogs, cows, baboons, and vultures. Other animals were mummified with the intention of being a food offering to humans in the afterlife. Additionally, household pets that held a special important to their owners were buried alongside them.

Several kinds of animal remains have been discovered in tombs all around Dayr al-Barsha, a Coptic village in Middle Egypt. The remains found in the shafts and burial chambers included dogs, foxes, eagle owls, bats, rodents, and snakes. These were determined to be individuals that had entered the deposits by accident. Other animal remains that were found were more common and recurred more than those individuals that wound up accidentally trapped in these tombs. These remains included numerous gazelle and cattle bones, as well as calves and goats which were believed to have been in result of human behavior. This was due to finding that some remains had fragments altered, missing, or separated from their original skeletons. These remains also had traces of paint and cut marks on them, seen especially with cattle skulls and feet. Based on this, the natural environment of the Dayr al-Barsha tombs, and the fact that only some parts of these animals were found, the possibility of natural deposition can be ruled out, and the cause of these remains in fact are most likely caused by animal sacrifices, as only the head, foreleg, and feet were apparently selected for deposition within the tombs. According to a study by Christopher Eyre, cattle meat was actually not a part of the daily diet in Ancient Egypt, as the consumption of meat only took place during celebrations including funerary and mortuary rituals, and the practice of providing the deceased with offerings of cattle going back to the Predynastic Period. [32]

After the mummy was prepared, it would need to be re-animated, symbolically, by a priest. The opening of the mouth ceremony was conducted by a priest who would utter a spell and touch the mummy or sarcophagus with a ceremonial adze – a copper or stone blade. This ceremony ensured that the mummy could breathe and speak in the afterlife. In a similar fashion, the priest could utter spells to reanimate the mummy's arms, legs, and other body parts.

The priests, maybe even the king's successor, proceeded to move the body through the causeway to the mortuary temple. This is where prayers were recited, incense was burned, and more rituals were performed to help prepare the king for his final journey. The king's mummy was then placed inside the pyramid along with enormous amount of food, drink, furniture, clothes, and jewelry which were to be used in the afterlife. The pyramid was sealed so that no one would ever enter it again. However, the king's soul could move through the burial chamber as it wished. After the funeral the king becomes a god and could be worshipped in the temples beside his pyramid. [33]

In ancient times Egyptians were buried directly in the ground. Since the weather was so hot and dry, it was easy for the bodies to remain preserved. Usually the bodies would be buried in the fetal position. [34] Ancient Egyptians believed the burial process to be an important part in sending humans to a comfortable afterlife. The Egyptians believed that, after death, the deceased could still have such feelings of anger, or hold a grudge as the living. The deceased were also expected to support and help their living family. [35] They believed that the Ba and Ka are what enabled the dead to support their family. The Ba made it possible for an invisible twin to be released from the body to support the family, while the Ka would recognize the twin when it would come back to the body. [36] With the ideas of the dead being so valuable, it is clear why the Egyptians treated the deceased with respect. The less fortunate Egyptians still wanted their family members to be given a proper burial. A typical burial would be held in the desert where the family would wrap the body in a cloth and bury it with everyday objects for the dead to be comfortable. [37] Although some could afford mummification, most commoners were not mummified due to the expense. [38] Often the poor are found in mass graves where their bodies are not mummified and only with minimal household objects, spread out throughout the desert, often in areas that are now populated. [ citation needed ]

The tomb was the housing for the deceased and served two crucial functions: the tomb provided infinite protection for the deceased to rest, as well as a place for mourners to perform rituals in which aided the deceased into eternal life. Therefore, the ancient Egyptians were very serious about the way in which the tombs were built. [39] Two hallmarks of the tomb included: a burial chamber, which housed the physical body of the deceased (inside a coffin) as well as funerary objects deemed most important, and a "cult place," which resembled a chapel where mourners, family, and friends could congregate. The tomb of a king included a full temple, instead of a chapel. [39]

Typically, the tomb of a deceased person was located somewhere close by their home community. The ancient Egyptians opted to bury the deceased in land that was not particularly fertile or useful for vegetation. Therefore, tombs were mostly built in desert areas. Tombs were usually built near each other and rarely stood alone. For a deceased king, however, the tomb was located in a place of utmost sacredness. [39]

In the Prehistoric Egypt, bodies were buried in deserts because they would naturally be preserved by dehydration. The "graves" were small oval or rectangular pits dug in the sand. They could give the body of the deceased in a tight position on its left side alongside a few jars of food and drink and slate palettes with magical religious spells. The size of graves eventually increased according to status and wealth. The dry, desert conditions were a benefit in ancient Egypt for burials of the poor, who could not afford the complex burial preparations that the wealthy had.

The simple graves evolved into mudbrick structures called mastabas. Royal mastabas later developed into step pyramids and then "true pyramids." [40] As soon as a king took the throne he would start to build his pyramid. Rituals of the burial, including the "Opening of the mouth ceremony" took place at the Valley Temple. [33] [41] While a pyramid's large size was made to protect against robbery, it may also be connected to a religious belief about the sun god, Ra. [42]

A majority of cemeteries were located on the west bank of the Nile, which was metaphorically viewed as "the realm of the dead." The tomb was said to represent the deceased's place in the cosmos, which ultimately depended on the social class of the deceased. If the deceased was of a notably high-class, they were buried near the king, whereas middle and lower class individuals were simply buried near the communities in which they had lived. [39] In many cases, the tombs of the high-class were situated in accordance with the tombs of the lower classes so that they would be viewed as a "focal point." For example, one burial site was designed so that the tombs of the governors were placed alongside the slope of a hill, whereas the tombs of the governor's attendants were placed at the foot of the hill. [39]

After having been preserved, the mummy was placed into a coffin. Although the coffins that housed the deceased bodies were made simply of wood, they were intricately painted and designed to suit each individual. During the Old Kingdom, the following was included on each coffin: the title of the deceased, a list of offerings, a false compartment through which ka could pass through, and painted eyes so that the deceased could look through the coffin. [43] The decorations on the coffin usually fit the deceased's status.

During the Middle Kingdom, the coffin was treated as if it were a "miniature tomb" and was painted and inscribed like so. Goddesses Isis and Nephthys were painted on the coffins, and were said to guard the deceased in the afterlife. Along the sides of the coffins, the four sons of Horus were painted, amongst other gods. Prayers were often inscribed on the coffins as well. [43]

Anthropoid coffins soon emerged, which were tailored to the contour of the deceased's body. The deceased's face and hair was painted onto the coffin so to personalize it further. [43] A sarcophagus, which is a large, stone container, was used to house the coffin, and provide supplementary protection to the dead body. The Ancient Egyptians translated the word "sarcophagus" to mean "possessor of life," and therefore, the sarcophagus would aid the deceased into the afterlife. [44]

One of the funerary practices followed by the Egyptians was preparing properly for the afterlife. Ka, the vital force within the Ancient Egyptian concept of the soul, would not return to the deceased body if embalming was not carried out in the proper fashion. [29] In this case, the body decayed, and possibly became unrecognizable, which rendered the afterlife unattainable for the deceased person. [25] If the proper precautions were not taken, damnation would occur. Damnation meant that Egyptians would not experience the glories of the afterlife where they became a deified figure and would be welcomed by the Gods. [45] Instead, damnation was depicted in the books of the underworld. It was a place of opposites chaos, fire, and struggle. [45] Different pages of the books of the underworld depict different perspectives of what happens during damnation. It discusses cutting out humanity and individuality from the person and reversing the cosmic order. [45]

The idea of judgement went as follows: in order to be considered for the admittance into the afterlife, those who died were obligated to undergo a multi-step judgement by certain gods. [39] The concept and belief in judgement is outlined in the Book of the Dead, a funerary text of the New Kingdom. The Book of the Dead is composed of spells relating to the deceased and the afterlife. Spell 125, in particular, is understood to be delivered by the deceased at the outset of the judgement process. [39]

The visual picture of what judgement looks like has been discovered through ancient Egyptian ruins and artefacts. The procedure was depicted as follows: the deceased's heart was weighed in comparison to the feather of Maat, while Ammit awaited to eat the heart (if the deceased was found to be a sinner). [39] Osiris was the judge (among others), and represented an ideal output of the judgement process for the deceased who entered his judgement hall. This is because he resurrected and regained his godly status after he was justified against his brother Set, who wrongly murdered him. [28] The deceased pleaded to Osiris that they had not committed sin, which is known as a "negative confession." [28] The forty-two Assessors of Maat judged how virtuous the life of the deceased was, and this represented the principal element of the deceased entering the afterlife. After passing judgement, the family and friends of the deceased celebrated them and boasted about their righteousness to attain entry into the afterlife. [25]

Many mummies were provided with some form of funerary literature to take with them to the afterlife. Most funerary literature consists of lists of spells and instructions for navigating the afterlife. During the Old Kingdom, only the pharaoh had access to this material, which scholars refer to as the Pyramid Texts. The Pyramid Texts are a collection of spells to assure the royal resurrection and protect the pharaoh from various malignant influences. The Pharaoh Unas was the first to use this collection of spells, as he and a few subsequent pharaohs had them carved on the walls of their pyramids. [46] These texts were individually chosen from a larger bank of spells.

In the First Intermediate Period and in the Middle Kingdom, some of the Pyramid Text spells also are found in burial chambers of high officials and on many coffins, where they begin to evolve into what scholars call the Coffin Texts. In this period, the nobles and many non-royal Egyptians began to have access to funerary literature. Although many spells from the earlier texts were carried over, the new coffin texts also had additional spells, along with slight changes made to make this new funerary text more fit for the nobility. [6]

In the New Kingdom, the Coffin Texts became the Book of the Dead, or the Funeral Papyri, and would last through the Late Kingdom. The text in these books was divided according to chapters/ spells, which were almost two-hundred in number. Each one of these texts was individualized for the deceased, though to varying degrees. If the person was rich enough, then they could commission their own personal version of the text that would include only the spells that they wanted. However, if one was not so wealthy, then one had to make do with the pre-made versions that had spaces left for the name of the deceased.

If the scribe ran out of room while doing the transcription, he would just stop the spell wherever he was and would not continue. [47] It is not until the Twenty-sixth Dynasty that there began to be any regulation of the order or even the number of spells that were to be included in the Book of the Dead. At this time, the regulation is set at 192 spells to be placed in the book, with certain ones holding the same place at all times. [48] This makes it seem as if the order of the texts was not what was important, so the person could place them in an order that he was comfortable with, but rather that it was what was written that mattered.

Although the types of burial goods changed throughout ancient Egyptian history, their purpose to protect the deceased and provide sustenance in the afterlife remained.

From the earliest periods of Egyptian history, all Egyptians were buried with at least some goods that they thought were necessary after death. At a minimum, these consisted of everyday objects such as bowls, combs, and other trinkets, along with food. Wealthier Egyptians could afford to be buried with jewelry, furniture, and other valuables, which made them targets of tomb robbers. In the early Dynastic Period, tombs were filled with daily life objects, such as furniture, jewelry and other valuables. They also contained many stone and pottery vessels. [49] One important factor in the development of Ancient Egyptian tombs was the need of storage space for funerary goods.

As burial customs developed in the Old Kingdom, wealthy citizens were buried in wooden or stone coffins. However, the number of burial goods declined. They were often just a set of copper models, tools and vessels. [50] Starting in the First Intermediate period, wooden models became very popular burial goods. These wooden models often depict everyday activities that the deceased expected to continue doing in the afterlife. Also, a type of rectangular coffin became the standard, being brightly painted and often including an offering formula. Objects of daily use were not often included in the tombs during this period.

At the end of the Middle Kingdom, new object types were introduced into burials, such as the first shabtis and the first heart scarabs. Shabtis were little clay statues made to perform tasks on command for the pharaoh. Now objects of daily use appear in tombs again, often magical items already employed for protecting the living. Scarabs (beetles) collect animal dung and roll it into little balls. To the Egyptians, these balls looked like the life-giving Sun, so they hoped that scarabs would bring them long life. Scarabs have been found in tombs and graves. [51]

In the New Kingdom, some of the old burial customs changed. For example, an anthropoid coffin shape became standardized, and the deceased were provided with a small shabti statue, which the Egyptians believed would perform work for them in the afterlife. Elite burials were often filled with objects of daily use. Under Ramesses II and later all daily life objects disappear from tombs. They most often only contained a selection of items especially made for the burial. Also, in later burials, the numbers of shabti statues increased in some burials, numbering more than four hundred statues. In addition to these shabti statues, the deceased could be buried with many different types of magical figurines to protect them from harm.

Funerary boats were a part of some ancient Egyptian burials. [52] Boats played a major role in Egyptian religion because they were conceived as the main means by which the gods traveled across the sky and through to the netherworld. One type of boat used at funerals was for making pilgrimages to holy sites such as Abydos. A large funerary boat, for example, was found near the pyramid of the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Khufu. The funerary boats were usually made of wood the Egyptians used a collection of papyrus reeds and tied them together with the wood very tightly. [53] The most common route for funerary boats was the River Nile to the afterlife. The boat carried the coffin and often had a dog in the boat since they believed a dog would lead the deceased to the afterlife. [54] The boats usually measured about 20 feet or longer. These however did not match those of the great pharaohs like Pharaoh Khufu (who built the Great Pyramid). His funerary boat was approximately 144 foot long with 12 oars. Common funerary boats were smaller sized with few oars. [55]

At the Ure Museum, there is an Egyptian funerary boat on display that represents a typical tomb offering. This boat symbolizes the transport of the dead from life to the afterlife. In Ancient Egypt death was seen as a boat journey. More specifically, it was seen as a trip across their River Nile that joined the North and South. This funerary boat offering was added to the museum's collection in 1923 from the Liverpool Institute of Archaeology from the Tomb of the Officials at Beni Hassan.

Through the study of mummies themselves in addition to ancient writers and modern scientists, a better understanding of the Ancient Egyptian mummification process is promoted. The majority of what is known to be true about the mummification process is based on the writing of early historians who carefully recorded the processes-- one of which was Herodotus. Now, modern day archaeologists are using the writings of early historians as a basis for their study. The advancement of new technology including x-rays has allowed for the analysis of mummies without destroying the elaborate outer wrappings of the body. In addition to the use of x-rays, autopsies are also being performed in order to gain a better understanding of the diseases suffered by Ancient Egyptians as well as the treatments used for these diseases. A pregnant mummy sheds light on pregnancy complications and prenatal care and treatments. [56] [57] In learning their age of death, experts are able to create a timeline of the dates regarding the ruling of Egyptian kings. In looking at the bones of the mummified bodies, experts get a better idea of the average height and life span. Studying Ancient Egyptian Mummies, archaeologists are able to learn about the past.

The Horrific History of “Mummy Brown”

Cultural artifacts were treated much different back then.

When the first tombs of Egyptian royalty were discovered by European explorers and treasure hunters, they were thought of as incredible curiosities of the ancient world. Some of the most famous sarcophagi in Egypt were discovered under British rule, which meant that her treasures could be shipped back to England or anywhere else in the empire to be used for any purpose. And, use them they did. Beginning in the 1600s, mummies shipped from Egypt were treated in a ghastly manner and many were used “mummy brown”.

The Culture of Death

The Victorian fascination with the death, the supernatural, and the occult is well documented. Not only did high infant mortality rates impact how people viewed death, Queen Victoria’s decades-long mourning for her husband made mourning culture quite elaborate.

Funerals were grand affairs that one might be issued a gold-embossed invitation for and spiritualism caught on as a way for the living to commune with the dead.

All these aspects of Western culture led to the formation of a deep and long-lasting preoccupation with the tombs of ancient Egypt, which had begun in the Middle Ages and had been reawakened with Napoleon’s exploration of Egyptian tombsin the late 18th century and his subsequent volume on the subject which inspired would-be anthropologists to flock to Egypt. At the time the field was newly-minted, with most universities having not yet created anthropology departments or requirements. And, the elaborate death rituals of ancient Egypt proved to be extremely interesting to Europeans- and later the whole world.

The Gruesome Realities

Victorians would hold “unwrapping parties” where the mummified bodies of Egyptian priests and royalty were unwrapped while surrounded by a circle of intrigued attendees. At the time this was not seen as desecration of a dead body, but instead a fun and spooky game, perhaps with links to otherworldly energies. One can imagine that they thought of it more like playing an ouija board than grave robbing, but there was also an element of academic study to it.

Once the mummies of felines and humans had been unwrapped, having survived thousands of years in their tombs, many were then ground into a powder and mixed into potions. These medicines were then either applied topically or ingested by those seeking cures to everything from broken bones to epilepsy. It was cannibalism repackaged as medicine.

The word “mummy” comes from the term for this dust (“mumia”) which is a corruption of the Arabic word for bitumen, which mummia was wrongly thought to be a replacement for.

This magical powder, which could be ground very fine, was also used as a pigment for artists. In the days before high quality artists’ paints were commercially available, painters mixed up their own colors. The formulations were often made from linseed oil mixed with finely crushed semi-precious stones or minerals. But, many artists fell in love with the way that paints made with mummy dust gave richness and depth to their paintings. The hue could vary in composition, but usually gave a multidimensional tonality to their browns. This brown became known as “mummy brown” or “Egyptian brown”.

The first mummy brown paints were made as early as the 16th and 17th centuries and were popular with some of the Pre-Raphaelite artists well into the 19th century. Their romantic worldview was sometimes at odds with this pigment. But, in the end it proved to be so popular that when tubes of oil paint were first manufactured, mummy brown was among the colors for sale.

Eerily, the last manufacturer of mummy brown had only “run out” of mummies in 1964which isn’t so long ago. Over the years it has been rumored that “homemade” mummies of prisoners or other indigent deceased were sometimes substituted for ancient mummies in making the pigment.

Egyptian Artifacts Today

Egypt has long reaped the tourism profits of a world gripped by Egyptomania, yet the precious ancient artifacts have often been sources of contention.

Artifacts taken from Egypt during colonial eras, and even those loaned out to museums or taken on tour on more equitable terms, have not always been treated with respect. Since the days of the Victorian unwrapping parties and mummy brown paints, Egyptian laws on what can (and cannot) be done with ancient Egyptian artifacts have become much stricter in order to prevent the gross mistreatment of these precious relics and human remains.

Egyptian Mummies on View in New Smithsonian Exhibition

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History will open “Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt” April 5, an examination of ancient Egyptian burial practices that will include mummies from Smithsonian collections. The exhibition will give visitors a view into how religion and belief systems have helped people navigate everyday life both in ancient and modern-day Egypt. The three cases are a preview of a larger exhibition that will open this fall and spotlight Smithsonian science, showing how museum experts have gleaned important insights into the ancient world. Additional cases will be unveiled this fall showcasing more Egyptian human and animal mummies, some never before exhibited.

The April 5 exhibits, “In the Mummy’s Tomb,” “Making a Mummy” and “What’s in a Face,” focus on Egyptian burial rites. Visitors will explore Egyptian cosmology and learn about burial rituals through recreations of tombs, a step-by-step tutorial on the mummification process and a display of six mummy masks that will bring them face-to-face with the once-living people who now lie beneath linen wrappings.

“This exhibition will feature mummies and other spectacular objects from our collections on display for the first time,” says Melinda Zeder, curator of Old World Archaeology in the Department of Anthropology. “We invite visitors to find out more about Egyptian tombs, mythology, mummies and the window they give us into ancient Egyptian life and preparations for eternity.”

On Nov. 17, the museum will debut its largest exhibition of ancient Egyptian mummies and artifacts to date with more mummies on display than ever before, some of which have never before been seen by the public. The exhibition will focus on Smithsonian science and what museum experts have learned about burial practices, health, disease and demographics from studying mummies. This will give a better understanding of Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife and provide special insights into the lives of the individuals buried in wooden coffins like the ones that will be on view.

An in-depth analysis of the link between animal mummification and Egyptian belief systems can be explored by examining high-resolution X-rays and CT scans of bull, cat, ibis, hawk, crocodile and baboon mummies. Other displays show how insects became an important part of preparing for the afterlife and include a richly decorated inner coffin of a woman named Tentkhonsu, who was a member of a group of noble women known as a “musical harem of the god.” Visitors can delve into the ways Egyptians tried to ensure their eternal life and care for their deceased family members and learn about two of the most prominent gods, Osiris and Re, who helped the dead achieve eternal life and kept the natural order of the world of the living.

Strange medicine

Mummification was a complex, lengthy process that helped preserve the body for its journey in the afterlife. Although the process changed over time, many of its core practices remained the same. After removing the body’s internal organs, priests would use natron, a naturally occurring salt, to dry it out. Sometimes fragrant substances, like myrrh, were used to anoint the body. Oils and resins would be applied to the body, which would then be stuffed with linen rags or sawdust before being sealed and wrapped in bandages. (Learn more about the mummification process.)

Scholars have had difficulty pinning down exactly how mummies came to be used for medicine. There is evidence that Europeans believed that embalmed bodies contained otherworldly healing powers. Other scholars trace the relationship’s origin to the misconception that mummies contained bitumen, a substance long associated with healing in the ancient world.

Black, sticky, and viscous, bitumen is a form of petroleum found in areas around the Dead Sea. First-century A.D. writers Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides, as well as the second-century A.D. Galen, wrote about its healing properties. Dioscorides described one form as a liquid from Apollonia (modern Albania) known, in Persian, as mumiya. According to Pliny, it could heal wounds and a range of maladies. (These cultures also preserve their dead.)

European scholars in the Middle Ages associated bitumen with a blackish substance found in the tombs of Egypt. An 11th-century physician, Constantinus Africanus, wrote that mumiya “is a spice found in the sepulchers of the dead . . . That is best which is black, ill-smelling, shiny, and massive.”


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Mummy, body embalmed, naturally preserved, or treated for burial with preservatives after the manner of the ancient Egyptians. The process varied from age to age in Egypt, but it always involved removing the internal organs (though in a late period they were replaced after treatment), treating the body with resin, and wrapping it in linen bandages. Among the many other peoples who practiced mummification were the people living along the Torres Strait, between Papua New Guinea and Australia, and the Incas of South America.

There was a widespread belief that Egyptian mummies were prepared with bitumen (the word comes from the Arabic mūmiyah ‘bitumen’), which was supposed to have medicinal value. Throughout the Middle Ages, “mummy,” made by pounding mummified bodies, was a standard product of apothecary shops. In course of time it was forgotten that the virtue of mummy lay in the bitumen, and spurious mummy was made from the bodies of felons and suicides. The traffic in mummy continued in Europe until the 18th century.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.

Watch the video: The Secret Of The Chinchorro Mummies. The Oldest Mummies In The World. Timeline (December 2022).

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