Anubis attending the
mummy of Sennedjem
The embalming and mummy-making process took up to 70 days and was practiced well into the Roman period. Embalming and mummification are believed to have been carried out by a caste or family and was passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately for historians and archaeologists no record of how they did it has survived.

The Greek historian Herodotus said he witnessed the practice on a trip to Egypt in 484 B.C. "In the best treatment," he wrote, "first they draw out the brains through the nostrils with an iron hook, and what the hook cannot reach is dissolved with drugs..Next they make an incision in the flank with a sharp obsidian blade through which they can extract all internal organs. Then they clean out the body cavity, rinsing it first with palm wine and again with a solution of pounded spices. Then it is filled with pure crushed myrrh, cassia and all other aromatic substances, except frankincense...The incision is sewn up and then the body is placed in natron.”

Within two or three days after death all the hair was shaven off and the body was opened with special stone knives from Ethiopia. The intestines, liver and stomach were removed and placed in alabaster jars. The heart was left in place after the internal organs were removed. Sometimes the body was filled with sawdust, linen, and as well as the aromatic spices that Herodotus mentioned. Beeswax was sometimes pored in the brain cavity. Sometimes you see hair on mummies. This is not because hair keeps growing after a person dies as some have said but because dehydration of the body after death can cause retraction of the skin around hair and nails, giving the illusion that they have grown.

The body was covered in natron several days to prevent the body from decaying. The natron drew water out of the body and preserves it as if it were dried fish. Without water bacteria can not cause decay. Sometimes the tree resin of conifers was used. It too sucks out water. There are stories of the body being dried on a bed of animal heads before it is wrapped in linen.

Natron is a naturally-occurring mixture of baking soda and salt that absorbs moisture and fat. One can still buy chunks of the gray crystalline stuff in the suqs of Cairo. It is still mined in southwest of the Nile Delta and usually sold as washing soda. When it is used in mummification it gives off a strong, nasty stench. Other stuff used in mummy-making such as resinosa lumps of frankincense---which seal bandages when melted---and palm wine---which ancient embalmers used to wash out internal cavities after evisceration---are also available in the markets.

Removing the Organs from Ancient Egyptian Mummies

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Canopic jars
The ancient Egyptians believed that dead would use their organs in the next life and thus a great effort was made to preserve them. Embalmers removed internal organs, taking out the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines through a cut in the body and placed them in four sacred, alabaster canopic jars. Early canopic jars had human heads on them. Later ones had the heads of a human, falcon, jackal and ape. Sometime the male sexual organ was also cut off and preserved.

The internal organs were removed with minimal damage to the body through a three-inch incision made with an obsidian blade, which was considerably sharper than bronze and copper tools. The kidneys were ignored, and often left inside the body. There isn’t a word for kidney in the ancient Egyptian language. The chest, abdomen and pelvis cavities were stuffed with tightly rolled linen bundles. This was done to keep the body from collapsing.

The heart was often left in place. Sometimes it was removed, wrapped, and placed back in the body because it was believed to be the "medium of spiritual understanding" and "the organ of thought and emotion." Egyptians believed that the heart was required for final judgement. Only if the heart was as light as the feather of truth would the god of Osiris receive its owner into the afterlife. The brain was thrown out. It had no special significance to the Egyptians.

Recreating the Organ Removal Process of Ancient Egyptian Mummies

In 1994, Bob Brier, a professor of Egyptology at Long Island University and Ronn Wade, an anatomy specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, attempted to replicate the embalming and mummy-making process of the ancient Egyptians--- using only ancient Egyptian-era tools and Herodotus’s description---on a 187-pound Baltimore man who died of heart attack in his seventies and donated his body to science. [Sources: Wendy Marston, Discover, March 2000; Bob Brier, Archaeology, January/February 2001]

Brier and Wade used an obsidian blade to make three-inch incision for removing the internal organs and found the obsidian was sharper than a modern scalpel. The organs were then pulled through the incision, using the fingers and a copper knife. The first organs removed were the upper intestinal tract and pancreas, followed by the spleen, kidneys, and bladder. The intestines posed some difficulties because they were connected to other organs. The stomach was next, followed by the liver and lungs and the heart.

The liver was biggest obstacle and the slit had to extended to five inches to make room for it, and even then Wade said “it like delivering a small child through a tiny opening.” The heart was cut from the lungs with a bronze knife, which sharper than a copper one.

20120215-mummy making.jpg

At this point the body weighed 157 pounds. When all the organs were removed, the body cavity was disinfected with palm wine and 29-linen-wrapped packets of natron were placed in the body. They absorbed water and unpleasant smells and aided dessication. The organs were placed on ceramic platters and covered with natron.

Removing the Brain from Ancient Egyptian Mummies

The Egyptians apparently did not appreciate the significance of the brain. After it was drawn through the nose it was thrown away and liquid resin was poured in the skull. Brier and Wade tried to remove the brain through the nose with a hook on two donated heads. Brier told Discover: “The tissue just doesn’t adhere to the tool...It’s too moist; it won’t come out. We had to put the hook and rotate it like a whisk...The brain poured out pink with a little blood, like a strawberry milk shake.”

In Archaeology Brier wrote: “We inserted a long bronze instrument shaped like a miniature harpoon, inside the naval passage and hammered it through the cribiform plate [a thin bone between the eyes] into the cranium with a wooden block. Then we inserted the coat hanger-shaped instrument into the cranium and rotated it for ten minutes on each side, breaking down the brain enough so it would run out when the cadaver was inverted.” To clean the skull they wrapped linen around a thin bronze tool and swabbed out the leftover tissue.

Materials such as mud and sand were placed in the face to prevent the head from having a shrunken appearance and make it look as lifelike as possible.

Ancient Egyptian Mummy-Making Process

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Canopic jar
Herodotus wrote that after the after the body was covered in natron for “70 days, never longer” the “body is washed and wrapped from head to feet in linen which has been cut into strips and smeared underside with gum, which is commonly used by the Egyptians as glue. In this condition the body is returned to the family.”

Thirty-five to 70 days after death the salt had drawn the water out of the body, which was then drained and dried. The body was washed with perfumed water and wrapped in linen soaked in preservative ointment. Prayers were said while the body was being wrapped. One such prayer went: “O doubly wonderful powerful, eternally young, and very mighty lady of the west and mistress of the east, may breathing take place in the head of the deceased in the netherworld!”

Amulets, fetishes, and pieces of papyrus with magic texts were placed with the mummy wrappings. The most important one was scarab placed on the chest. The pieces of linen was sometimes more than half a meter wide and 60 meters long. An entire mummy might be wrapped in 150 yards or more of linen. Ramses II was wrapped in about 350 yards of linen. With male mummies the penis was often separately wrapped.

Mummies from the Old Kingdom had their arms at their side. Later mummies had their arms crossed over their chest. Royals had the right arm over the left. Onions were sometimes stuffed in the eye sockets of mummies and peppers were sometimes shoved up the nose. As the embalmers became more skilled they inserted artificial eyes, golden tongues, added metal sheaths to hold the fingers in place and used resinous paste to give the corpse some color. In later dynasties the linen strips were often painted bright colors. Sometimes peppercorns were stuffed in the nose to keep it from being flattened during the wrapping.

Prices for Mummy Services

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Canopic jar
Embalmers charged different rates depending in the services performed. Deluxe mummification often featured things like artificial eyes and hair extensions. For the poor, the bodies were simple allowed to dry ray and were wrapped in coarse linen bandages. Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “Middle-income people had their innards liquefied by injected cedar-tree oil and drained through the rectum, also after 70 days in saltwater. The cheapest method was to give the body an enema before its 70-day immersion.”

In an essay called “How Much Did a Coffin Cost--- The Social and Economic Aspects of the Funerary Arts in Ancient Egypt,” the Egyptologist Kathlyn M. Cooney analyzes data to show that every element in a tomb---including the sarcophagus, canopic jars, shabties, baskets, chests and much more---had its conventional price. [Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, March 11, 2010]

On the essay Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “A larger point made by Ms. Cooney is that contrary to the impression given by major museum collections, very few Egyptians could afford a coffin, much less a tomb and related accouterments. Because of the expense there was a thriving market in secondhand coffins, obtained most likely from grave robbers. An example in the exhibition is identified as “Coffin of the Lady of the House, Weretwahset, Reinscribed for Bensuipet” (from about 1292 to 1190 B.C.). The painted wooden container’s lid is carved in the form of a regal young woman. Examination of its hieroglyphic inscriptions proves that Bensuipet’s name was written over Weretwahset’s.”

Ms. Cooney likens Egyptian funerals to modern weddings as events designed to display the power and prestige of the celebrants. Religion may have determined iconography, she notes, but “social and economic factors dictated the quality, size, materials and style of every funerary object produced in ancient Egypt.”

Recreating the Mummy-Making Process

After Wade and Brier put the packets of natron in the body the placed it on a wooden platform and placed a huge bag of natron on it and placed it in a room whose temperature ranged between 90 degrees and 107 degrees F. Brier has earlier collected 580 pounds of natron from “salt fields” 60 miles outside of Cairo

After 35 days, the body was retrieved. The natron was wet and clumped around the body and smelled like “wet sand.” The body was rigid and , blackened and had shrunk from 157 pounds to 79 pounds, meaning it had lost 77 pounds of water. For all intents and purposes it was a mummy without strips of cloth.

In the next to last stage the body was rubbed with strips of linen that had been soaked in an oil containing frankincense, myrrh, cedar, lotus and palm wine. Then the body was wrapped in linen strips secured in places with a laquer made of cedar resin. The body was then left to dry out further for 140 days as opposed to 35 more as suggested by Herodotus). Afterwards it weighed 70 pounds. In the final stage the entire body was wrapped with linen, with each limb, toe and finger wrapped individually.

Five years after the mummy was made it remained virtually unchanged from the day the process was complete. There was no bacterial decay and the skin was intact.

Aufderheide has mummified a dog that was going to be put to sleep anyway and did come CT scans to spot lesions, swelling and other abnormalities that could be used in determining ailments in real mummies.

Ancient Egyptian Mummy Preservation

The preservation of the mummies has as much to do with the dry climate of Egypt as the embalming of the mummies. The tarlike unguents used on many mummies bodies caused chemical reactions that carbonized the bones and tissues. The best preserved mummies were embalmed with dry natron salts rather than salts applied in a solution.

The exact ingredients of the embalming materials has long been a mystery. In the early 2000s, Richard Evershed at the University of Bristol in Britain took samples from 13 mummies and analyzed them using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry and found out found that most embalming concoctions were a mixture of fats, resins, perfumes and waxes.

All the mummies studied by Evershed had been smeared with fat, mostly plant oils although fat from cattle, sheep and goats was also used. As the fats dried they hardened and formed a barrier that kept humidity, moisture and bacteria out. Sometimes the fats formed a shiny coating that was like varnish. They were also often coated with beeswax and resins from coniferous trees from Lebanon, Syria and Turkey

There was little evidence of palm wine, which would have evaporated away. There was no evidence of bitumen, which is ironic considering that is the material that gave mummies their name. The most probable explanation of why there was a link to the Arabic word for bitumen is that mummies blackened by age or exposure to air looked like bitumen was applied to them. Sometimes when animal mummies are being studied gases combine and the mummy explodes.

Ancient Egyptian Mummy Objects

Nubian shabti
Various object were wrapped with the mummies. These included amulets, bangles, armbands, rings and pectorals made of gold and lapis lazuli. In some cases the toes were protected with thimbles of gold. Some objects seem unlikely to be worn in real life and must have been worn by mummies only.

Many of them were amulets expected to help the mummies’ owners in the afterlife. The mysterious eye warded off evil spirits. Scarabs were associated with the rising sun and regeneration. Bird represented ba , an aspect of the mummy’ soul and was thought to keep the mummy in contact with the world by flying out the burial shaft into the sunlight in the day and returning to the mummy at night.

Amulets were carried by the living and wrapped with mummies. The mummy of King Tut had 143 of them. Their primary purpose was to attract “sympathetic magic” that would protect the wearer from misfortune and maybe bring some good luck. Amulets were inserted in different stages of the embalming process, each with special spells and incantations to go along with it. Some bore inscriptions and were made of materials, such as gold, faience (a blue stone), lapis lazuli, carnelian, green feldspar, and green jasper.

Amulets with protective cobras, ba (winged symbols of the soul), re (sun disk), ankhs, and scarabs were popular. There were amulets for limbs, organs and other body parts and ones derived from the hieroglyphics for “good,” “truth,” and “eternity.” Hearts, hands and feet were often found on mummies in places where the real body parts were normally found, the idea being that they could be offered as substitutes if the real ones were coveted by demons.

There were amulets for at least 50 principal gods and a countless number of local ones. These amulets took the form of the gods themselves or their symbols. Popular ones included Anabus (a jackal), Horus (a falcon), Thoth (an ibis) and Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love and fertility. The old amulets were found in simple burials dating to 3100 B.C.

The amulet symbolizing udjat (health)---the eye of Horus---connected the wearer with the god Horus, who lost his eye in a cosmic battle with the god Seth and later had the eye restored. The udjat is regarded as one of the most powerful of all amulets, preserving the wearer and making him strong in the afterlife. Tyet amulets of Isis are red in color, symbolizing her blood. They also brought strength and good health to the wearer.

Objects Taken by Ancient Egyptians to the Afterlife

falco found in King Tut's tomb
Ken Johnson wrote in New York Times that the ancient Egyptians believed that life “was only a prologue to the main attraction, the afterlife, and they devoted much of their tremendous creative and technological ingenuity to ensuring that their dead---the wealthy ones, anyway---would have everything needed on the next plane of existence. They pickled the bodies of the deceased, stocked their graves and tombs with food, drink, jewelry, furniture, pets, reading material and whatever else that might come in handy upon awakening in the next dimension.” [Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, March 11, 2010]

In 2010, the Brooklyn Museum hosted an exhibition called “To Live Forever: Art and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt,” which focused on objects for the afterlife and explored all facets of the Egyptian funerary industry. Organized by Edward Bleiberg, the museum’s curator of Egyptian art, the exhibition presented more than 100 objects, from massive stone sarcophagus covers and elaborately decorated wooden coffins to statuettes and elegant ink drawings on sheets of papyrus.

“One of the exhibition’s least prepossessing objects,” Johnson wrote, “is a terra-cotta sarcophagus lid molded rather crudely into a cartoonish, bust-length portrait of a man. Made sometime between 1292 and 1075 B.C., it is like the work of an untrained folk artist imitating the kind of deluxe Egyptian artistry that museums have made more familiar. It is included to demonstrate that the quality of a coffin depended on what the family could afford. Just like today, in ancient Egypt professional coffin makers offered a range of options priced according to the cost of material and labor. Clay, painted to resemble royal sarcophagi, was the material of choice for budget-minded customers.

“Another revealing piece, and a more beautiful one, is an 8 ½-inch-tall figure of a man smoothly carved in lustrous dark wood, from about 1400 to 1336 B.C. It is a particularly lovely example of a shabty, a magical servant that would do chores for the deceased in the afterlife. Rich people had many shabties made of precious materials, including wood, which was a rare commodity. The less fortunate had to settle for shabties made of faience, a glazed earthenware. A picture caption in the excellent catalog explains that while the wealthy might have a different shabty for every day of the year, “40 shabties were an ideal number to own in the Ramesside Period” because that provided “enough workers for each of the 30 days of the month plus overseers and foremen.”

“Faience pieces did not necessarily look cheap, however, so rich as well as poor had shabties made from it. Among the exhibition’s most striking objects is a weird jade-green faience sculpture less than three inches high representing a dwarf standing with each foot on the head of an alligator and each hand gripping a snake by the neck. Identified as Pataikos or a form of the dwarf-god Bes, this little fellow was put into a tomb to protect the dead.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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