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The sarcophagus containing the mummy of Queen Ahmose Nefertari.

Making Mummies

The robber slithered through a tight hole into a small chamber. The lantern he carried flickered, showing the interior of the dusty room. In the center lay a big stone box. Smiling, the thief pulled out a small crowbar. Working quickly, but quietly, he managed to remove the heavy lid. Beneath was a wooden coffin shaped roughly like a man. The portrait of the occupant as he appeared in life was painted on the cover. Using the crowbar, the lid was off in seconds. The robber found himself staring into an ancient, bandaged face. Using his knife, the thief cut through the burial shrouds to find a heavy golden amulet. He ripped it off the dead man’s neck and leered at the glinting gold. Suddenly, bandaged, knarled hands lashed out. With supernatural strength the robber was grabbed by the throat and hauled into the casket. The strangled cries of the mummy’s most recent victim echoed through the theater as the camera panned up to show a string of hieroglyphics upon the wall. The sub-titles read, "Death will come quickly to those that violate my tomb..."

In Hollywood pictures, both old and new, mummies rise from the dead to avenge the violation of their tombs. In reality, no mummy has ever been charged with murder.

What is a mummy anyway? A guy with a lot of bandages wrapped around him?

When living things die, they quickly begin to decay. Decay is caused by minute bacteria that use the organic material found in a body as food. While a body is living, it has defenses against attack by bacteria. After death, the cell warriors and antibodies that protect the body can nolonger defend it. Depending on the temperature and humidity, a body left out in the open for a few months can be reduced to a pile of bones as the soft tissues are consumed by bacteria, insects and other small animals.

A body is mummified to protect it against decay. Although we usually think of a mummy as a human being, animals and even plants can be mummified. Many cultures around the world practiced mummification of at least some of their dead, including the Paraca Indians of Peru and the Guanches of the Canary Islands. The most famous mummies are associated with ancient Egypt, however.

The word mummy actually is not Egyptian as many people suppose. It comes from the Arabic word mumiyah, which refers to a body preserved by the use of wax or bitumen. The term was actually applied incorrectly, as the Egyptians did not use either of these methods to make their mummies.

The Egyptians practiced mummification because they believed that after death a person's spirit survived. This spirit they called the Ka. The Ka needed some physical resting place. A mummified body could be one resting place for the Ka. Interestingly enough, the Egyptians also believed the Ka could inhabit a stone statue, or even a painting. The tombs of the richest and most powerful people were provided with both of these in case the mummy got destroyed.

In order to keep a body from decaying, it is necessary to stop the bacteria from invading it. There are several ways to do this. Today, bodies can be preserved through refrigeration. It is hard for bacteria to thrive in a temperature near the freezing point. Chemicals injected into the body can also prevent bacteria. The Egyptians, though, preserved bodies by removing the water from them.

Bacteria need water to survive. Water is abundant in most living things (eighty-percent of mass of a body is water). The Egyptian's mummification method dried out the body so that bacteria could not easily live inside it.

The first Egyptian mummies were probably accidents. Early in Egyptian history, people were buried in simple graves dug out of the sand. Because of Egypt’s dry climate, the sand had a natural drying effect. Sandstorms uncovered early graves, showing the Egyptians how drying out the body preserved it. This probably got the Egyptians thinking about how they could preserve the body not just by luck or accident, but by a set of preservation procedures. The earliest mummies made by the Egyptians date back to around 3200 BC.

The Mummy of Tuthmose III unwrapped by Emile Brugsch in 1882.

The earliest description of mummification procedures were written by the historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus. Herodotus visited Egypt around 450 BC and wrote down the mummification process as was told to him by Egyptian priests:

…As much of the brain as possible is extracted through the nostrils with an iron hook, and what the hook cannot reach is dissolved with drugs. Next, the flank is slit open with sharp Ethiopian stone (probably a flake of obsidian) and the entire contents of the abdomen are removed. The cavity is then thoroughly cleansed and washed out, 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 opening is sewn up, and then the body is placed in natron, covered entirely for 70 days, never longer.

The lungs, liver, stomach and intestines of the mummy were dried out and placed into separate "Canopic" jars that would be placed in the tomb with the body The heart, considered by the Egyptians to be the center of thought and soul, was left in the mummy. The brain was considered of little value and discarded.

The natron Herodotus talks about is a substance that draws water out of the body, drying it out. It occurs naturally in parts of Egypt and is a mixture of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, with small amounts of sodium chloride and sodium sulphate. Once the body was dried out it would no longer be subject to decay from the action of bacteria.

Though Herodotus did not record it, Richard Evershed and Stephen Buckley of the University of Bristol in England used two advanced techniques called gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to test mummy remains and have discovered the Egyptians also used other materials in their work besides natron. These materials acted as antibacterial agents and a watertight seals. The seals would prevent moisture from reentering the body and creating further decay.

Herodotus continues:

When this period, which may not be longer, is ended, the body is washed and then wrapped from head to feet in linen which has been cut into strips and smeared on the underside with gum which is commonly used by the Egyptians in the place of glue. In this condition the body is given back to the family, who have a case of wood made, which is shaped like the human figure, into which it is placed. The case is then sealed and stored in a sepulchral chamber, upright, against the wall.

Not all bodies got the full treatment, Herodotus records. The poor usually got only a shorter and less effective preservation procedure. The technique also changed over time. Early mummies did not have their internal organs removed. Later mumifiers removed the internal organs, preserved them and returned them to the body.

In 1994, Ronn Wade, Director of the Maryland State Anatomy Board, and Bob Brier, a professor of philosophy and Egyptology at Long Island University, decided to test Herodotus’s instructions. Taking a human body that had been willed to science, they carefully followed the procedure outline in the account of Herodotus and another historian, Diodorus Siculus who visited Egypt around 60 BC. They were successful. They recorded that the body, originally weighing 156 pounds after the organs were removed, weighed only 79 pounds after treatment with the natron, showing the mummy had lost 77 pounds of water.

The Wade-Brier mummy can now be used as a standard to which scientists can compare the mummies they find at ancient archaeological sites. Scientists have learned quite a bit about the ancient Egyptians by examing mummies. Ancient Egyptians, suffered with calcification of the arteries, as we do. Bilharziasis, a disease caused by worms that plagues modern Egyptians was also common in ancient times. The teeth of mummies, from the poorest man to the king, had been worn by eating food with sand in it. Sand was also in the air the ancient Egyptians breathed and because of it they suffered from a lung condition called silicosis.

Unfortunately Western archaeologists did not always take as much interest in what they could learn from the mummies as they might have. Some early researchers were only interested in the jewelry found on themummy and discarded the body. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, mummies were ground into powder and sold as a cure-all drug that could be put on injuries or taken internally. The trend died out when the supply of mummies dried up and the public became aware that suppliers had been using the bodies of recently-dead subjects instead of ancient ones.

Scientists of earlier eras were forced to unwrap the mummy’s bandages to examine the bodies. This was bad for the mummies and potentially bad for the scientists. Researchers have recently shown that mold spores found on some mummies are still active and able to cause serious disease. Scientists now unwrap mummies only while they are wearing protective gear. In fact, they prefer not to unwrap the mummies at all, but to examine them through the use of X-rays and CAT scans that do no damage to the ancient figures.

Three mummies found in the tomb of Amenhotep II.

The Egyptians not only mummified people, but animals as well. A favorite pet might be mummified to follow his master into his tomb and accompany him into the afterlife. The Egyptians usually stopped short of entombing a man’s servants with him, but they did create tiny model figures of servants that were thought to be able to continue to serve the man after his death.

While it seems that all the tombs of the Egyptian kings have been found and their mummies plundered or put in museums, there may be thousands of mummies of lessor nobles or common people still entombed in places in Egypt. Recently, a cache of an estimated 10,000 mummies was found when a farmer’s mule took a wrong step into a hole. The observant farmer noticed that the hole led to a chamber full of mummies.

Even though the mummies may never rise and walk like in the movies, they still tell stories. Stories about the ancient, but advanced civilization of Egypt thousand of years ago.

Experiment: Make a fruit mummy.

Copyright Lee Krystek, 2000. All Rights Reserved.


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