Mummy at the Louvre
For those that could afford it death was an elaborate endeavor that involved activities that could take up to a year, not including the construction of a tomb which could take several years and which often began long before a person died. Information on funerals and burial customs comes largely from hieroglyphics on tomb walls and funeral papyri.

Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins University told Smithsonian magazine: “People started preparing for the next world as soon as they could afford to. They bought coffins, statues when they were married and stored them in their homes. When they invited people over, everybody knew what they had and how good the quality was.”

Vultures and jackals and gods with their body parts are associated with the dead in part because they ate corpses.

The Royal Mummy Room on the top floor of the Egyptian Museum contains eleven royal mummies of pharaohs and their wives who ruled Egypt between 1552 and 1069 B.C.”including those of Ramses the Great, Seti I, Amenhotep I, and his wife Meryt-Amon. In 1981 President Anwar Sadat declared "it was undignified to display the bodies of kings" and the mummies were removed. In 1995, the mummies were once again put on display as part of campaign to boost tourism during a period when tourists were attacks by Islamists.

Ancient Egyptian Mummies

Mummies are dead bodies that went through an elaborate embalming process and then in the case of ancient Egyptians were wrapped in strips of cloth, usually linen. Mummification was regarded as a temporary phase before eternal life. According to legend the first mummy was the god Osiris, who had been slain by his brother Seth and had his body parts scattered all over the world. Osiris’s wife Isis collected the pieces and wrapped them in linen, allowing Osiris to be reborn as the god of the dead. The word mummy is derived from mumiya , an Arabic word for a certain kind of bituminous asphalt found in Persia.

Mummy cover of a temple singer
The Egyptian believed that if the body was preserved in a lifelike condition after death it could travel to the afterlife. The oldest mummy, a woman buried near the Great Pyramid of Cheops, has been dated to 2,600 B.C.

Initially only pharaohs and royalty were mummified. Later priests, high officials and aristocrats were too, and finally commoners that could afford it. For the most part mummification was simply too expensive for ordinary Egyptians. Commoners sometimes went through a perfunctory mummification. Usually they were rubbed in oil or covered in salt or tree resin and wrapped in a single sheath of linen and deposited in a hole or cave with a few possessions and amulets.

Mummy culture is one of the most interesting and beloved features of Egyptian culture. Every schoolchild knows about them. Many kids have a deep fascination with them, some psychologists have said, partly because they discover them at a time when they first understand the significance of death. Numerous movies have been made about them. There is even a Mummy Congress, an international organization that meets once every three years to discuss mummies, the latest discoveries and research related to mummies not only from Egypt but also from the Andes, Russia, China and other places.

Generally mummies with their arms crossed are believed to be pharaohs. Those with their arms crossed lower on the body date to the period around Ramses the Great. Those with their arms crossed higher up are from a later period. Mummies can be dated by looking at the arm positions and examining the embalming and mummying techniques. Those from around the time of Ramses the Great are made of the finest linens close to the body, with slightly courser ones further out and large amounts of resin in the skull cavity. The linen is folded in a distinct way in the chest cavity.

Book: Inside the Mummy’s Tomb edited by Howard Reid is a collection of stories about mummies.

Sources: the World Mummy Congress and the Ancient Egyptian Mummy Tissue Bank at the University of Manchester in England. Dr. Arthur Aufderheide of the University of Minnesota is regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on the dissection of mummies and a founder of modern paleopathology---the study of ancient diseases.

Ancient Egyptian Proto-Mummies

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Sarcophagus with a mummy
The bodies of two women, dated around 3500 B.C., found in a cemetery used by working class people in the site of Hierakonoplis, bear evidence of mummification: parts of their body had been padded with linen bundles and wrapped in resin-soaked linen bandages. Other bodies from this period appear to have been ritually beheaded. Excavations there uncovered the tomb of elephant covered in fine fabrics and oriented to the west like humans. A wrapped arm was found in the tomb of the First Dynasty King Den (circa 2980 B.C.)

Old Kingdom (2686 to 2125 B.C.) proto mummies consisted of defleshed bones with features plastered on them. Each bone was wrapped separately in linen; then the body was assembled. The wrapping was done with great care. Linen was wrapped inside the kneecaps, around each finger joint, and in and out of individual vertebrae. The eye sockets had been filled with balls of paste pressed into linen. The penis was carefully modeled in linen.

Old Kingdom (2686 to 2125 B.C.) proto mummies were first discovered in 1910 by archaeologist W.M. Flinders near where he found an Old Kingdom pyramid text read: "Take you head, collect your bones, gather your limbs, shake the earth from your flesh!...The gatekeeper comes out for you, he grasps your hand, takes you into Heaven."

Some archaeologists believe that the ancient Egyptians and other people that practiced mummification may have been inspired by the natural preservation that takes place when a body is buried in hot desert sand and has its water drawn out, leaving behind an intact body that seems like a better home for a spirit than decayed flesh and bones.

Dead Bodies and Mummies

mummy case
The skin, ribs and chest membranes of a mummy are generally stuck together. Unless measures are taken to prevent it, mummies will naturally curl up, and prying them open can be quite difficult. It is not uncommon for the legs to be removed by severing the hip ligament and twisting them counterclockwise. If organs are not taken out and preserved in some way they shrink considerably, turn brown and eventually lose their shape and turn powdery and disappear. As they age the lungs collapse and go to the back of the rib cage; the bladder slips down to pelvis.

Some say old mummies smell like old books. Others say the smell is closer to dried leather. Kevin Krajick wrote in The New Yorker the scent was closer to “some edible dried ants” he purchased in South America. “It was faintly acrid, dried-cheese aura---the distilled essence of testy old proteins.” [Source: Kevin Krajick, The New Yorker, May 16, 2005]

Kajick wrote: “When the human body expires, it usually disappears in a quick predictable schedule. Within minutes, cell organelles rupture, releasing enzymes that eat the surrounding flesh. Bacteria that inhabit the gut proliferate, race through the visceral veins to the lungs and the hair, then spread to other organs through the arteries. The corpse begins rotting, a process that typically ends” with “the dissolution of skeletal tissue by the interaction of bone mineral with ions in the groundwater.” In the hours after death the liver is most obvious organ in the chest cavity. It is dark brown and big and leads to the kidneys. The lungs are still puffy and pinkish, The other organs are various shades of gray.

The process behind mummification is similar to that used to make beef jerkey and dried fruit. And the key to that is desiccation---depriving flesh-eating enzymes of the water they need to go about their business. Many mummies have their eyes because water inside the eyes drains out quickly, leaving behind a durable protein casing. Penises tend to shrivel up, in the words of Krajick, resembling “vacated butterfly cocoons. “The brain liquefies within days, leaving behind a reddish-brown precipitate when the skull dries out.

Thutmose II mummy
The ancient Egyptians removed the internal organs, which eliminates both water and decay-causing microbes. Salts they used leeched out remaining moisture. Resins such as myrrh and oil pitch smeared on the body helped to seal it from moisture and humidity in the air. Wrapping the body in linen---or even just leaving cloths on---helps the preservation process in dry climates by drawing moisture away from the body but overall doesn’t really help that much.

What Mummies Tell Us About Ancient Egyptian Health

Mummy expert Dr. Arthur Aufderheide estimates that only 10 percent to 15 percent of mummies show the cause of death. They are more revealing about chronic ailments, the presence of parasites and determining what people ate (if their intestines are still there).

In 1910, Marc Armand Ruffer, a French microbiologist, found dried eggs of the schistosomiasis worm in kidneys of two 3000-year-old mummies. Schistosomiasis remains a disease that is prevalent in Egypt today. In other mummies he found gallstones, inflamed intestines, and a spleen that had apparently been enlarged by malaria. Ruffer looked inside ancient blood vessels and found calcified spots---evidence of hardening of the arteries, surprising considering the ancient Egyptians ate a low-fat high-fiber diet with a lot of grains. Ruffer invented a solution of salts for rehydrating ancient tissues (some researchers today use fabric softener) and popularized the term “paleopathology.”

Over the decades scientists have learned to glean information from ancient bones. Leprosy, anemia, stunted growth, syphilis and tuberculosis leave behind characteristic marks in the eye sockets, spine and other bones. Bones also leave behind clues about arthritis and vitamin deficiencies and can indicate whether a person who died violently such as being struck by an ax or knife or a blunt instrument. Even so 80 percent of ailments---plague, aneurisms, measles and others---leave behind no clues or marks.

See King Tutankhamun (King Tut)

Romanized Mummies

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Fayum Mummy Portrait
Egyptians continued to be embalmed, mummified and laid to rest in Egyptian-style tombs during the periods when Ptolemic Greeks and Romans occupied Egypt. The mummies and their tombs showed Egyptian, Greek and Roman influences. The practice of mummification began to disappear around the A.D. 4th century when Christianity began to flourish.

Romanized Egyptians often but more work into the exterior decorations of the mummy coverings than on the mummification process. The dead were embalmed and wrapped as mummies. Painted portraits of the deceased were made on shrouds wrapped around the mummy wrappings. The portraits were sometimes quite beautiful and realistic. They were painted on linen and plaster. Sometimes they were covered with gold.

Mummification was performed on ordinary people but the work was shoddy compared to what was done for pharaohs and noblemen in Pharonic times. The mummification process was done in 40 days instead of 70, there were no canopic jars for organs, and many mummies were buried with coffins or sarcophagi.

The mummies had Roman hairstyles and held Greek or Roman coins used to bribe the ferryman in the other world the but the iconography on the masks and painted deities that showed the way to the afterlife were clearly Egyptian.

Roman Golden Mummies

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Fayum Mummy Portrait
At the Valley of the Golden Mummies at Bahariya Oasis in the Western Deserts of Egypt, there are believed to be around 10,000 mummies scattered over a six square kilometer area. Some have been fitted with elaborate masks and have waistcoats covered with gold. The mummy of a five-foot-tall woman was adorned with a crown with four decorative rows of curls and a gilded mask that extended over her chest to disks representing breasts. Decorations had images of cobras and children. [Source: Donovan Webster, National Geographic, October 1999]

Archaeologists discovered the mummy cemetery at Bahariya Oasis (200 miles southwest of Cairo) in 1996. The tombs date between the 4th century B.C. and forth century A.D. and were discovered after the leg of a donkey "fell through the sand" into a tomb. In Roman times, Bahariya was a wealthy a wine producing area.

By 2001, 234 mummies at Bahariya Oasis had been excavated. They mostly dated back to Greco-Roman times---from the 6th century B.C. to the A.D. 2nd century---and included people from a range of social statuses. Many were sheathed in gold. Some had beautifully painted masks. Hundreds of golden coins, jewelry, medallions and beads were found. There was talk of it being one of the richest sources of artifacts in Egypt. Little had been touched by looters.

The most spectacular tombs belonged to the governors who ruled the oasis and their families. Some of them were so rich and powerful they believed they were as powerful as the rulers in Alexandria. They were buried in lavish limestone sarcophagi with hundreds of golden objects and shawabti statues. Inside the mummy of a wife of one governor was a heavy solid gold heart, placed were her real heart once was.

The dead were mummified and buried in shafts about 15 feet deep. Some of the mummies were gilded and buried in groups of up to 43 in a single tomb. The mummies and their sarcophagi contained Egyptian-style hieroglyphics and Egyptian gods such as Osiris mixed with people with Greco-Roman hairstyles and clothes and god like Aphrodite. Some contained objects linked to Christianity.

Gilded masks were found with landowners, administrators and military officers. Mummies of children have been found that are completely covered in gold. Other have gilded gypsum masks that extend to their midriffs. Some headless mummies were found.

Ancient Roman Mummy Paintings

The greatest Roman paintings were produced by Romanized Egyptians, who embalmed their dead, wrapped them as mummies, and painted portraits of the deceased on small wooden panels attached at the head of the shroud wrapped around the mummy wrappings. Sometimes these mummies were put on display before they were buried.

Mummy paintings were rendered from life using colored beeswax on wood panels bounded by linen strips on the outside of the mummy. Pigments mixed with hot wax were used by the Greeks to paint their warships. The Romans used this technique to make portraits on mummy cases in the Fayum region. It is nor clear whether it is the Egyptian influence or the Roman influence that makes the works so exquisite.

About 1,000 Romanized Egyptian mummy portraits have been unearthed at Harawa and Fayum, a fertile basin in the Nile basin. Dating between A.D. 25 and 259 and wonderfully preserved by the dry desert condition, the portraits are often beautiful works of art with shadowing and perspective more advanced than that found in the Middle Ages.

Book: The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces From Ancient Egypt (published by Harry N. Abrams Inc.) contains 180 portraits.

Ancient Roman Mummy Painting Masterpieces

Some of the Roman-era mummy portraits recall Modigliani and Rembrandt. Describing a portrait of woman painted around A.D. 55-70, Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune: "The wistful aloofness tempered by the faintest suggestion of contentment as if inspired by happy recollections that cannot be shared makes it timeless masterpiece as great as anything the Italian Renaissance ever produced."

Describing a portrait made between A.D. 190 and 220, Melikian wrote: It "shows a long oval face with huge eyes quizzically laughing as she looked the artist straight in the eye...Her dark eyes stare intensely at the viewer as if desperate for an answer to some haunting question.”

A splendid painting of a small boy was preserved after it was wrapped in a mummy with a body. This particular portrait was painted with pigments suspended in hot wax which helped preserve it as well as give it a "creamy" texture.

Mummy Medicines and Mummies in Middle Ages

Describing a Momia found about six miles from the Pyramids, London merchant John Sanderson wrote in 1586: There "are thousand of embalmed bodies; which were buried thousands of years past in a sandy Cave...We were let down by ropes , as into a Well, with Waxe-candles burning in our hands, and so walked upon the bodies of all sorts and sizes, great and small, and some embalmed in little earthen Pots....they gave no noysome smell at all." [Source: Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey, Avon, 1987]

Mummy cartonnage
"I broke all the bodies to see how the flesh was turned to drugge, and brought home divers head, hands, arms and feet, for a show: were bought also 600 pounds for the Turkie Companie in Pieces...together with one body: they are lapped in above an hundred double of cloth which rotting and pilling off , you may see the skin, flesh fingers and nayles firm, altered black. One little hand I brought into England, to show; and presented it to my brother, who gave the same to a Doctor in Oxford." [Ibid]

Crushed up mummies had been used in the Middle East as a remedy for a host of ills for a long time. During the Middle Ages, the Crusaders brought back news of the healing powers of mummies. From the 13th to the 17th century mummies were pulverized into medicine in Europe. Apothecary shops sold real and fake mummy powder as cures for a number of ills. Ground mummy was an ingredient of Macbeth's witches brew.

Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times, The word mummy comes from the Arabic mumiya, referring to bitumen or asphalt, which was thought to have medicinal properties. It turns out that many of the oils and resins used in embalming are similar in character to mumiya (or mumia). So after the 12th century, a desire for this curative compound not only helped inspire a covetous mummy cult but also gave these corpses their now common name. Countless mummies were pulverized into powders believed to preserve life before death, if not afterward.

A contemporary tube of “Mumijo Crème” claims to have the same ingredients as a vintage bottle of mumiya. There is also a 1924 Merck pharmaceutical catalog in which “Mumia vera aegyptic”---true Egyptian mummy extract---is sold just a page before the catalog offers “Vaseline Pennsylvania.”

Mummies in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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mummy cases in Cairo in the 1880s
In the 19th century, mummies were displayed in European homes and European aristocrats, such as the Habsburgs, collected them. Mummies were so common that explorers reputedly stepped on them in tombs and tourist brought them home and unwrapped them at parties. Thomas "Mummy" Petty unwrapped mummies in front of large audiences to piano music. One mummy was coved in gold, another had his genitals intact and another held an onion. Surgeons sometimes dissected them and drew applause when they turned up something like a huge ovarian cyst.

In Innocents Abroad Mark Twain asserted that mummies were used to power Egyptian steam locomotives, a claim most likely untrue. Americans made paper from mummy linen purchased for 3 cents a pound and it was said that mummies were used as firewood for steam engines even though people complained they didn't burn very well. Mummies also provided material for the pigment “Egyptian brown.”

Among those who collected mummies were the artist Gabriel von Max (1840-1915), whose collection of mummies and skulls must have been related to his fascination with parapsychology, hypnosis, somnambulism and spiritualism. His paintings combine kitsch spirituality, a fascination with the primitive and a preoccupation with his large family of pet monkeys.

In 2003, an Egyptian truck driver bought a 2,500-year-old mummy for $7,000 with hopes of reselling it to help pay off a tractor loan. Believing he could resell it for $2 million, he knocked on doors in a rich neighborhood of Cairo. Police arrested him before he could find a buyer.

Mummies of the World

Mummy at the British_Museum
Mummy-making was also practiced the Paraca Indians of Peru, the Chinchorro People of Chile and the Guanches in the Canary Islands. Similar practiced are done by other cultures around the world. Prehistoric Aleutian islanders used to place their dead, wrapped in bird skins and furs, inside caves heated by volcanic vents, where they were preserved. Two thousand mummies---most of theme clothed but not wrapped and preserved by excellent ventilation and dry limestone walls---lie in catacomb beneath the 16th century Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Sicily. Bodies have also been preserved by glaciers as was with the Iceman of the Alps, and by European bogs, which remove metal ions that facilitate decay.

In 2011 the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia hosted an exhibit called “Mummies of the World. Describing itself as “the largest exhibition of real mummies and related artifacts ever assembled,” the exhibit featured 150 objects, most on loan from German museums.Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times, “After a while, you get used to the trappings of death: the vacant, hollow stares; prongs of teeth protruding from desiccated gums; the shriveled flesh pulled like dried leather over jutting joints. And there’s a dreadful uniformity in those signs, whether you look at the remains of a 500-year-old dog that was found in 1953 in a peat bog in Germany or at an 800-year-old embalmed child from Peru who had been interred in a crunched and compact crouch. [Source: Edward Rothstein, New York Times, June 16, 2011]

What you don’t get used to in this haunting, engrossing and somewhat creepy exhibition... are the trappings of life that are still evident in these mummified bodies, the hints of something before death, whether left intact by ice or bog or crypt, or jealously preserved using linen wrappings, various salts, tarlike paste and obsessive determination.

There is the silken, flaxen hair of an eighth-century Coptic Egyptian child, visible past the edges of an ancient embroidered tunic, or the oval tattoos on the skin above the bony breasts of a 13th-century Peruvian woman, or---almost nightmarishly touching---the dark, rolled flesh of an 8- to 10-month-old Peruvian child who died 6,500 years ago, at least 1,000 years before Egyptians were known to preserve their dead rulers for an eternity of posthumous pleasures.

The sensations accumulate, for displayed here too are far less well-known mummies of South America, where, over thousands of years, multiple cultures honed embalming techniques, from the ancient Chinchorros in Peru to the 13th-century Chiu-chiu in Chile, leading up to the Incas, with their human sacrifices and death celebrations. And here, too, are the members of a single family from 18th-century Hungary, the ill-fated Orlovitses, who perished when tuberculosis ravaged the small town of Vac. Their bodies were rediscovered in 1994, naturally mummified, their paper-thin skin pocked with small holes left by stray bugs in a forgotten church crypt.

And who can avoid thinking that even in historical detail there are elements of the fantastical, at least when it comes to mummies? The early-17th-century corpse of Baron von Holz is here; so is the mummified Baroness. Both were interred in Sommersdorf Castle in Southern Germany. And both, we are told, were given to the exhibition by Dr. Manfred Baron von Crailsheim, their living descendent---on “private loan.”

South American Mummies

Pre-Columbian mummies dating to at least 7,000 years ago (and maybe as far back as 10,000 years ago) have been found in the high, dry deserts of Chile and Peru. Many were buried in dry sand which is an excellent preservative. Three out of four bodies have been naturally mummified. The Chinchorro people developed a process that accelerates mummification in which smoking coals were placed in the body after it was disemboweled.

The San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum in Arica, Chile is the home of the world's oldest mummies. Found in the Atacama Desert, the world’s driest desert, they are said to be 10,000 years old, which would make them about 5,500 years older than the oldest mummies in Egyptians, but are more likely about 7,000 years old. Hundreds of these mummies have been found in the Atacama Desert. Many have been stuffed into urns, and preserved by dry air. Flesh doesn't decay in the dry desert air. Most date back to the last millennia.

One of mummies at the Arica museum , known as Miss Chile, still has its hair and clothes but lost half the skin from its face.. Many of the of the mummies were found in jars with their knees bound to their chests. Graham Green said the of Indian mummies, "with their hair and dresses intact dating from before the Conquest...put the British Museum in the shade." Some of the mummies have Asian-like features and some of the artefacts look similar to items found in Africa and ancient Egypt.

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Canopic jars

Study of Mummies

A number of important discoveries were made by the “German Mummy Project” using the latest scientific tools for analysis. In 2004 German scientist at Tuebingen University and the Munich-based Doerne Institute discovered why mummies have lasted for thousands of years. They found that chemical found in the cedar resins used in the embalming process contained a chemical called guaiacol that was very effective in deterring the growth of bacteria without damaging body tissues.

Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times, “Through the analysis of one Peruvian child... it was learned that the mummy’s preservation was more than an accident of climate. The skin bore traces of copal, a tree resin, which was evidence of deliberate embalming. Through CT scans, researchers have learned that in life mummies have suffered many illnesses and indignities as well. [Source: Edward Rothstein, New York Times, June 16, 2011]

One mummy showed evidence of a congenital heart problem. Another had signs of bone malformation. Yet another, of a woman in the Hungarian tomb, showed advanced tuberculosis, which she probably passed on to her husband and son, who are also displayed here. Analysis of hair in some Peruvian mummies found traces of nicotine and coca and signs of a fish- or plant-based diet. Worn teeth in an Egyptian mummy hinted at a diet of hard, coarse grains. DNA analysis has been used to guess at regions of origin.

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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