Although most widely known for its existence in ancient Egyptian culture, mummification was also a part of several other cultures including: the Inca civilization on the coasts of Peru and Chile, the Han dynasty in the Changsha area of China, and the Inuits in Greenland. However, the ancient Egyptians are known unofficially as the “Fathers of mummification.” Simply put, a mummy is the preserved body of a human being or an animal. Mummification is the actual process of artificially preserving the dead body, also known as embalming. The oldest known Egyptian mummy dated back to 3500 B.C. The first artificial mummies were made around 3000 B.C.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that after death, individuals would move on to the afterlife. A well-preserved body was one of two requirements a person needed to accomplish to become blessed with the afterlife, with the second being the passing of a final judgment. Furthermore, leaving the body to waste was considered an insult to the Gods and to the soul of the deceased. Thus the ancient Egyptians worked hard at finding the perfect conservation process, with many changes made along the way. At first, mummification was considered so expensive and high-class that only Pharaohs and rich nobles enjoyed the process. By 1550 B.C., however, several more individuals were able to afford the process, and mummification became a very popular act.
The Beginning of Mummification
The Egyptians of the Predynastic period (the period just before the Pharaonic monarchy, prior to 3100 BC) employed a much more simple process than the New Kingdom, the dynasty which made the most advances in mummification. The first mummies were wrapped the body only in goat hide, and buried in a sand pit. The body would dry from the heat of the sand, and therefore the body would not decay. This was more of a natural process, as opposed to the artifical mummufication employed later on. Other early practices including placing the body on a made from branches, or building tombs out of mud bricks and covering the tomb with a roof.
One of the oldest forms of evidence was found in 2003 in a desert near Cairo. A pile of bones with skin attached and proof of resin was found in a coffin, which was located in one of 20 mud-birck tombs. The evidence suggests that the mummy came from as far back as 3100 to 2890 BC, during Egypt’s first dynasty.
The Process of Mummification
The most familiar and widely practiced mummification process was that of the New Kingdom, which lasted from 1570 to 1069 BCE. This process took a total of seventy days, divided into several stages.
Embalming the Body
The process began with the body first being transported taken to a tent, the ‘place of purification.’ The individuals performing the mummufication process, known as embalmers, would wash the body with wine and rinse it with water straight from the Nile river in order to purify the body. They would then cut the body and remove several of the organs, since these are the first parts of the body that decompose. The stomach, lungs, liver, and intestines were washed and packed in a substance called Natron, a type of salt, which would make the organs more lifelike and flexible. At one point, the internal organs were placed in jars after being removed, and were not placed back in the body. Embalmers would bury four alternate jars with specific meanings with the body. The jars depicted four headed gods, the first was known as Imsety would “look after” the liver, the second was Hapy the baboon and represented the lungs, the third was Duamutef the jackal and protected the stomach, and the fourth and final was Qebensenuef the falcon, which guarded the intestines. The heart would be left in the body because it was considered essential to have in the afterlife, since it was believed to be the center of intelligence. The embalmers would then place a hook up the nose of the body to place a hole in the skull and scoop out the brain. Often times, masks made out of cartonnage were placed on the body’s head and shoulders, depicting the body’s face and wig to make it recognizable and distinguishable from other bodies. The embalmers would then cover the body in natron to dry it out.
Wrapping and Burying the Body
After forty days had passed, the body was taken to the Wabet, or the House of Purification. The body was washed a second time with water from the Nile, and the skull was stuffed with linen. The nose was plugged, and the entire body was covered with a mixture of oil, wax, gum, spices, and wax to prevent the skin from contracting. Hot resin was also placed on the body to close the pores. It would then be covered with oils so that the skin would not contract, and the internal organs that had initially been wrapped were returned to the body. The embalmers would also stuff the body with dry substances such as tree leaves and sawdust to account for the missing organs and fluids. Embalmers would often place amulets within the linen wrappings; these charm necklaces were believed to protect the bodies from evil. The amulets represented a wide spectra of plants, animals, and body parts, and were believed to have magical powers and excerpts from the book of the dead.
After the completion of the wrapping of the body, the mummy would be placed in a coffin/case. Bodies were sometimes placed in several coffins, with each one increasing in size. More coffins signified more wealth for the deceased individual. The coffins were often painted with bright colors to represent the awaiting afterlife which would provide a better world for the deceased. The cases also included hieroglyphics and images of various Gods.
After the body was placed in the coffin, a funeral took place on the seventieth day after the death. As the body was transported to the tomb, two women stood close to represent the goddess Isis and her sister. Along with these two women were a group of priests, who would burn incense and sprinkle milk along the path of the tomb. One of the priests would read spells to honor the dead, and dancers would perform visual representations of these spells. A priest wearing a jackal-headed mask to represent the god Anubis would then hold the coffin upright while a priest would touch the mummy’s mouth. This ritual, called the 'Opening of the Mouth,' was believed to spark the ability in the mummy to hear, speak, eat, and see in the afterlife. The funeral was complete after offerings such as food and clothing were given to the body. Embalmers would also place models of servants in the tombs, so that the deceased would not have to complete tasks and chores in the afterlife. Furthermore, the tomb was equipped with items needed in the afterlife, including nutrients and various goods.