The preservation of the body was an essential part of ancient Egyptian funerary practice, since it was to the body that the KA would return in order to find sustenance. If the body had decayed or was unrecognizable the ka would go hungry, and the afterlife be jeopardized. Mummification was therefore dedicated to the prevention of decay.
It has often been stated that the practice grew from observing that the hot, dry sand preserved those bodies buried in it; and that, having seen the effect on Predynastic corpses, the Egyptians sought to improve upon nature. This seems an inadequate and flawed explanation, and it is probably best to assume that the practice evolved simply to preserve the image of the body, and as techniques became more sophisticated so more of the actual body was retained. Some support for this is found in the fact that mummies from the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC) seem to have had their form and features preserved in plaster and paint, while the actual body decayed away beneath.
The Greek historian HERODOTUS (c.450 BC) provides the best literary account of the mummification process, although the technique would have been well past its peak by the time he observed it. He states:
There are those who are established in this profession and who practise the craft. When a corpse is brought to them they show the bearers wooden models of mummies, painted in imitation of the real thing. The best method of embalming is said to be that which was practised on one whose name I cannot mention in this context (i.e. OSIRIS). The second method they demonstrate is somewhat inferior and costs less. The third is cheapest of all. Having indicated the differences, they ask by which method the corpse is to prepared. And when the bearers have agreed a price and departed, the embalmers are left to begin their work.
In the best treatment, first of all they draw out the brains through the nostrils with an iron hook. When they have removed what they can this way they flush out the remainder with drugs. Next they make an incision in the flank with a sharp Ethiopian stone (i.e. obsidian blade) through which they extract all the internal organs. They then clean out the body cavity, rinsing it with palm wine and pounded spices, all except frankincense, and stitch it up again. And when they have done this they cover the corpse with natron for seventy days, but for no longer, and so mummify it. After the seventy days are up, they wash the corpse and wrap it from head to toe in bandages of the finest linen anointed with gum, which the Egyptians use for the most part instead of glue. Finally they hand over the body to the relatives who place it in a wooden coffin in the shape of a man before shutting it up in a burial chamber, propped upright against a wall. This is the most costly method of preparing the dead.
Those for whom the second and less expensive way has been chosen are treated as follows: the embalmers fill their syringes with cedar oil which they inject into the abdomen, neither cutting the flesh nor extracting the internal organs but introducing the oil through the anus which is then stopped up. Then they mummify the body for the prescribed number of days, at the end of which they allow the oil which had been injected to escape. So great is its strength that it brings away all the internal organs in liquid form. Moreover the natron eats away the flesh, reducing the body to skin and bone. After they have done this the embalmers give back the body without further ado. The third method of embalming, which is practised on the bodies of the poor, is this: the embalmers wash out the abdomen with a purge, mummify the corpse for seventy days then give it back to be taken away.
Embalmers evidently took some pride in their work, and were more highly organized than Herodotus implies. The overseers held priestly titles, stemming from the distant past when only royalty and the highest nobility were emblamed. It should be remembered that for most of Egyptian history the poorest people must have been interred in simple graves in the sand and relied on natural preservation. In charge of mummification was the "overseer of the mysteries" (hery seshta) who took the part of the Jackal-god ANUBIS. His assistant was the "seal-bearer of the god" (hetemw netjer), a title formerly borne by priests of Osiris. It was the "lector priest" (hery heb) who read the magical spells. Together these men oversaw the "bandagers" (wetyw) who undertook most of the actual evisceration and bandaging.
As these titles indicate, mummification was not only a technical process but also a ritualized one, the whole act seeking to repeat the stages in the making of the original mummy, that of Osiris. We know from two papyri of the first century AD describing "the ritual of embalming" (copied from earlier sources) that very specific rituals accompanied every stage of the work.
Shortly after death a body would be taken to a tent known as the ibw or "Place of Purification" where it would be washed in NATRON solution, before being taken to another area enclosing a further tent and known as the "House of Beauty" (per nefer), where the actual mummification took place. In the first method described by Herodotus the body would be eviscerated, except for the heart and kidneys. This was achieved by making an incision in the left flank, which would later be covered by an emblaming plate. Prior to the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC), however, evisceration was not always practised, and the brain was usually discarded.
When the viscera were removed, they were dried, rinsed, bandaged and placed in CANOPIC JARS or parcels, which were placed with the body or, in the Third Intermediate Period (1069-747 BC), returned to the body cavity, decorated on the exterior with the images of the four SONS OF HORUS. Wax figures of the latter were also frequently included in the visceral packages. Natron would then be piled over the corpse to desiccate it. Until quite recently scholars believed that the body was placed in a liquid natron solution, but experimental work has shown that dry natron is more effective. From the discovery of a wooden embalming table at Thebes, and from the travertine embalming tables of the APIS bulls at Memphis, it is clear that the natron was mounded over the body. Packets of natron might also be inserted into the body cavity during this period, to assist in the dehydration process. During this time up to 75 per cent of the body weight would be lost.
After some forty days the temporary stuffing would be removed (although it contained part of the deceased and was therefore retained for the burial), and the body cavity was packed with bags of clean natron, resin-soaked bandages and various aromatics in such a way as to give the body a more natural shape. In the XXIst Dynasty (1069-945 BC), subcutaneous packing was sometimes used to model the musculature of arms and legs and fill out the face. This was attempted, somewhat over enthusiastically, on the mummy of the XXIst Dynasty priests Henuttawy (wife of the chief priest of Amun, Pinudjem I), whose cheeks cracked as the skin shrank and dried. The brain cavity was also filled with resin or linen, the openings to the skull were packed, and artificial eyes were often added.
The whole body was then coated in resin, thus adding to the already darkened colour of the skin. The Arabs mistook this blackening for the effects of bitumen, and it is from their word for this -mummiya- that the word "mummy" derives. In fact bitumen is rarely found on mummies, although many have the appearance of being coated with it. Cosmetics were sometimes added, in order to give the body its final life-like appearance, and the whole was then bandaged, AMULETS being wrapped among the layers in the appropriate places dictated by their function. The type, material, and placing of such amulets is described in the BOOK OF THE DEAD. The bandaging took some fifteen days, and used many meters of linen, much of it from old clothing. In the cheaper methods evisceration was undertaken through the anus, much as Herodotus states, and the body desiccated.
The entire process - from death to burial - usually took seventy days, a period of time probably connected with the phases of the dog star Sirius. In the Old Kingdom, the deceased was believed to return as a star, and the period of mummification coincided with the time during which the star was visible. At the end of the process the deceased was renewed, and one of the embalming spells concludes with the assurance: "You will live again, you will liver for ever. Behold, you are young again for ever."
Less is known about the mummification of animals, although research into the mummification of cats and ibises is currently in progress. A demotic papyrus in Vienna records the procedures that accompanied mummification of the Apis bull.
During the Greco-Roman period, when corpses were regularly being transported from the home to the cemetery (and sometimes, if the death occurred away from home, back to their village), they were usually identified by tags made of wood, and occasionally stone. Mummy labels were inscribed with short ink texts in Greek or demotic (or occasionally in both languages), giving such vital information as the name, age, home-town and destination of the deceased, although some bear more elaborate inscriptions ranging from the cost of transport to short funerary prayers. In the case of poorer individuals, it appears that the labels might even have served as cheap STELAE or tombstones in the graves themselves.
Language: Aspects of writing | Linguistic Features | Hieroglyphs etc.Gods
Gods: Isis | Ra | Set | Osiris | Qebhsennef | Maat
Pyramids: Building stones | Egypt Land of the pyramids | Canstruction of Pyramids | Huni's Pyramid | Zoser's step Pyramid | Sneferu's Pyramid | The solar Boat | The grest pyeamid of cheops | Chephren's pyramid | Senusert I's pyramid | Sphinx
Paint: Introduction | Subjects of paint scenes
sports: Introduction | Chariots-training horses | Running | Combating sports | Aquatic sports | Competition | Games and toys | Acrobtics
jewellery: Introduction | Gold | Silver | The precious & semi-precious Stones | The substitutes of precious stones | Same kinds of jewellery | Discoveries of jewellery
Sculpture: Introduction | Old kingdom statues | Middle kingdom statues | New kingdom statues