Mummification is generally considered to be the artificial process by which the bodies of (usually notable) persons, as well as those of sacred animals, are intentionally preserved after death by treating them with various substances such as spices, gums, bitumen or natron. The practice seems to have been attempted by various peoples at various times throughout the world, but most were little more than crude attempts at an art that attained its greatest sophistication under the ancient Egyptians.
Not only did the ancient Egyptians achieve outstanding success in their preservation of the dead and their raising of the art of mummification to a state of virtual perfection, but they also seem to have developed it into an industry practised continuously for almost 4,000 years. Yet, like those other gigantic monuments to Egyptian civilization, the Pyramids, mummification is still one of Egypt's many mysteries. No one today is certain when, how, and apart from its later religious significance, even why the practice originated. None of the ancient Egyptians' records that have so far been discovered has been of much assistance in answering these questions. Even the earliest of these implies that the practice was already well established, if not perfected.
Early Egyptian Mummies
At least in part, the explanation as to the origins of mummification may lie in the climatic conditions of the country itself. The combination of Egypt's dry climate and the hot desert sands in which the earliest Predynastic dead were buried is believed to have caused the bodies to dry out and mummify naturally. The graves of this early period were mostly shallow and the bodies were covered simply with an animal skin or woven mat. As their moisture content (about three-quarters of a human body) was absorbed by the surrounding dry sand, bacteria could not breed and cause decay, and so the bodies were preserved. Modern scholars and archaeologists who have uncovered such early burials have found almost perfectly preserved, skin-covered skeletons, often with some of the hair remaining upon their heads.
Isolation from the sand and its preserving effects as burial customs became ever more elaborate, with the building of chambers for the dead to rest in, towards the end of the Predynastic Period is thought to have inspired the ancient Egyptians to begin attempting to preserve the dead by artificial means. Information about the first three Egyptian Dynasties remains limited and is often contradictory. However, anecdotal evidence dated to the Second Dynasty and the reign of the fifth king (whose name has been variously transcribed as Sethenes, Sened or Senedj), apparently indicates that the Egyptians had a well-enough established system of burial customs and beliefs, as well as sufficient anatomical knowledge, to at least attempt the mummification of bodies by this stage.
Periods and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt
|Dates (BC)||Period||Dynasties||Main Events|
Early Dynastic or Protodynastic Period
Unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Menes. Foundation of Memphis. Building of Step Pyramid.
Centralized administration. Building of Great Pyramids at Giza.
First Intermediate Period
Egypt divided. Political fragmentation. Control by local monarchs.
Reunification under Mentuhotep II. Foundation of Itj-towy. Administrative reforms. Co-regencies. Conquest of Nubia.
Second Intermediate Period
Hyksos rule. Theban dynasty liberates Egypt.
Imperial Egypt: empire extends from Syria to southern Sudan. Capital at Thebes. Great building programme.
Third Intermediate Period
Egypt: priesthood of Amun rule in Thebes, while pharaohs rule in Tanis.
Reunification of Egypt under 26th Dynasty. Persian invasion. Conquest by Alexander the Great: end of the line of native pharaohs.
About this Table
Egypt before the time of the pharaohs (as the kings of ancient Egypt were known) consisted of two countries: Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt was the land south of Thebes. Lower Egypt included the Nile delta and the cities of Memphis and Alexandria.
It is customary to divide the history of ancient Egypt into thirty dynasties of pharaohs over three main periods, or kingdoms. The history of Pharaonic Egypt begins around 3100 BC with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.
The three kingdoms were separated by periods of foreign domination and civil disorder.
The dates, periods and dynasties shown above may vary, often considerably, from other sources, as there is little agreement or consensus of opinion amongst historians about these matters. Ignoring these discrepancies, two excellent sites for all things concerning ancient Egypt are the Tour Egypt and Eyelid sites, both of which are seemingly more authoritative than Wikipedia.
Removal of Organs
Evidence dated to the Fourth Dynasty provides us with the first indication that the Egyptians were removing the internal organs from the body in their process of mummification. Found within the temple of King Cheops's mother, Hetepheres, was a carefully partitioned wooden chest. Within the partition and immersed in a dilute solution of natron - a natural rock salt which was a mixture of washing soda (sodium carbonate) and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) - were the deceased's internal organs, neatly packaged and wrapped in bandages.
Although the removal of the internal organs was an important step in their successful preservation of the dead, the ancient Egyptians seem to have been rather inconsistent in their approach to the undertaking. During both the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the practice varied from period to period and even from mummy to mummy. Sometimes the viscera were removed, other times just the brain; in some cases the body was dehydrated, and in other cases, only the skillful wrapping of the body in enormous quantities of linen and the insertion of a mask shaped in the deceased's own image gave the appearance of a well-preserved mummy.
Not until the Twenty-first Dynasty do the Egyptians seem to have understood exactly what was required to successfully preserve the dead. During this period the embalmers attained their highest skills and success in the art, and the entire process became well-organized, very elaborate and highly ritualized. Even so, the oldest complete mummies so far uncovered which are believed to have been intentionally preserved, are from the Fifth Dynasty (approximately 2500 BC).
Our information as to the procedure followed by the Egyptians in mummifying the dead comes mainly from the Greek historians Herodotus (fifth century BC) and Diodorus (first century BC), as well as from a few documents dating from the later periods of Egyptian civilization. All these accounts seem to be in general agreement with the examinations carried out upon the mummies themselves.
Basically there were three ways in which the embalmers would preserve the body, and each method was graded according to cost. The cheapest method was merely to soak the body in salt, which would leave the bones white and brittle, erase the facial features and hair completely, and leave the skin like paper. The second procedure consisted of soaking the body in hot bitumen as well as in salt. In this case, although the hair was removed, the body cavities became filled with bitumen and most of the facial features were retained. It is from the bodies preserved in this manner that the word 'mummy' originates; it is thought to be derived from a Persian word mummia, meaning 'bitumen' or 'tar'.
The third and most expensive method entailed the removal of all the internal organs through a cut made in the lower left side of the stomach. Only the heart was left in the body because the ancient Egyptians believed that the conscience was located there; it also had to be weighed in the nether world during the judgement to which all the dead were subjected. The brain was skilfully removed by forcing a pointed tool up through the nose and then scraping out the inside of the skull, probably with a small ladle.
Once cleaned in wine and spices, the body and its organs were separately packed in natron, which effectively dehydrated them over a period of 30 to 40 days. After dehydration, the body was packed with linen, sawdust, tar or even mud in order to make the body look as lifelike as possible. The internal organs, carefully wrapped and preserved, were either placed in the abdominal cavity before it was sewn closed or preserved separately in four stone canopic jars (each decorated with the heads of one of Horus's four sons).
Each limb, together with the head and torso, was then wrapped separately with over 150 metres of resin-smeared linen before the body was handed back to the family for burial. Every so often, various protective amulets -and sometimes the intestines as well - were inserted between the layers of linen to provide some protection in the nether world. Generally speaking, the entire process seems to have taken about 70 days, but it undoubtedly varied during the different Dynasties.
Decline of Mummification
After its 'golden age' during the Twenty-first Dynasty and shortly after, the standard and quality of mummification steadily and gradually declined. However, the practice did not completely disappear until Muslim Arabs conquered Egypt in AD 641.
It seems as though mankind has a subconscious need or desire to preserve the bodies of dead heroes. Alexander the Great was preserved in 'white honey which had not been melted', the English preserved their naval hereo, Lord Nelson, in brandy, and more recently the Communist countries have preserved the bodies of Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung.
The religious significance the ancient Egyptians attached to the art of mummification was based upon the belief that their god Osiris had been preserved by the gods from decaying after his death until they later restored him to life once more. By associating their dead kings with this god, the Egyptians believed that they, too, would be restored to life at some time in the future.
In 1976, the mummified corpse of Ramesses II was flown to Paris to undergo cobalt-60 radiation treatment in an attempt to kill the airborne fungi that had penetrated the mummy's showcase and was threatening to destroy the well-preserved body. Having been successfully cured of what has been termed its 'museum illness', the Pharaoh's mummy was later returned to its 'home' in Egypt's Cairo Museum. Who among those priests, busily preserving the body of their dead Pharaoh soon after his death in 1225 B.C., could have ever imagined that?
The lengths to which the modern world was prepared to go in order to keep the mummy intact demonstrates something of the fascination that this aspect of Egyptian civilization has held for the world since the mummies were rediscovered during Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798.
Holle Abee from Georgia on June 16, 2010:
Fascinating! Mummies have always interested me.
SidneyMorgan from Australia on April 05, 2010:
Have always been fascinated by Egyptology, your hub is interesting and a great read well done. I especial like that picture of Ramesses II it is difficult to believed his body is over 3000 years old.
Nemingha (author) on April 05, 2010:
Thanks very much for your kind comment and for stopping by.
cheaptrick from the bridge of sighs on April 05, 2010:
Excellent work!Tons of info and very well presented.It's a joy to find such time invested Hubs.