Why did the ancient Egyptians make mummies?
The ancient Egyptians saw death not as the end, but another step in the journey, and as such the body needed to be preserved in such a way that the soul would be able to recognise it in the afterlife. Through mummification, the drying and embalming of the dead to reduce the extent of decay (and deter pesky, corpse-nibbling bugs), they did just that.
Mummification was not limited to ancient Egypt; mummies have been found on all seven continents, in fact. But it’s with the land of the pharaohs that the practice is so indelibly linked. The process shown here is the most lavish, offering the maximum preservation money could buy, but there was an alternative for the less well off.
How to make a mummy in 6 steps
It took 70 days for an embalmer to transform a body into a mummy – after which it could survive for millennia, barring any accidents…
Remove the brain
After the deceased has been washed, a hook is inserted through a nostril and used to mash up the brain. The brain is then removed in chunks – with great care taken not to damage the face.
The internal organs are removed via an incision on the left side. The body is filled and covered with a naturally occurring salt, known as natron, to dry it out.
The body is left steeped in natron for 40 days: any less and it would not be dry enough; any longer and it would be too stiff.
Oils and fragrance
After the natron is removed, the body is stuffed with linen or sawdust to fill the voids left by the organs. Oils and fragrances are rubbed into the body to keep the skin supple.
Layers of linen are wrapped around the body, starting with the head and neck, then the limbs, and finally the torso. Resin is applied after each layer, which acts like glue. It’s estimated that 150 metres of linen bandages were needed to wrap a mummy
Shroud and mask
The final layer is a shroud, sometimes decorated with hieroglyphs denoting passages from the Book of the Dead – which isn’t actually a book, but a funerary text written on papyri that were entombed with the mummy. There is no definitive version.
In lieu of a death mask like that of Tutankhamun, the shroud may be painted with the deceased’s face.
The shroud-wrapped mummy is sealed in up to three coffins, typically all wooden and brightly painted. For pharaohs, these would be more ornate, perhaps made of gold and studded with gems. The coffins may, finally, be placed in a stone sarcophagus.
What are canopic jars?
These four vessels, made of stone or wood, safeguarded four of the major organs removed from the body – the lungs, stomach, liver and intestines. It was believed each would be needed in the afterlife. The heads represent the four sons of the Egyptian deity Horus.
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Which organ goes in which jar?
- The lungs are placed into the canopic jar of Hapi, which has the head of a baboon
- The intestines are placed into the canopic jar of Qebehsenuef , which has the head of a falcon
- The liver is placed into the canopic jar of Imsety , which has the head of a human
- The stomach is placed into the canopic jar of Duamutef, which has the head of a jackal
Why was the heart left within the body?
The only organ returned to the body, in most eras, is the heart – on account of it being considered the seat of character and identity.
Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart would be weighted by Anubis, the god of the underworld and the dead. Embalmers would often
wear masks bearing his visage during the mummification rites.
The heart would be weighed against the feather of ma’at; if the heart weighed less the feather, the deceased was admitted to paradise. If not, the heart would be fed to the goddess Ammit, and the soul condemned to eternal restlessness.
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What happens to a mummy’s brain?
The brain was not considered to have any importance, and was disposed of.
The cheaper option
If you couldn’t afford the full-pharaoh experience, there was a cheaper variant of mummification…
Recorded in Herodotus’s The Histories as being for those who “wish to avoid expense”, a cheaper method to the one described above was to inject cedar oil into the abdomen without disembowelment, plug the rectum, and cover the body with natron.
When unplugged, the oil – and the liquefied internal organs – came gushing out of the dried body, after which it was returned to the deceased’s family.
Kev Lochun is deputy editor of BBC History Revealed and digital section editor of HistoryExtra