A distinctive and often sensationalised aspect of the surviving archaeological record of the ancient Egyptians is the almost perfectly preserved remains of deceased humans. Egypt was one of many societies to practice mummification, it is a custom known from many other cultures, a variety of methods to preserve the physical remains of deceased people.
The word ‘mummy’ comes from the Persian word for bitumen ‘mummiya’. Early archaeologists believed bitumen had been used in the mummification process on account of the blackened state of the bodies. The term is now applied to all human remains which retain their soft tissue. However, the term is somewhat of a misnomer as although the use of bitumen has been recorded as early as the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC), it was not common until the Late Period (664-332 BC).
Most of the ancient Egyptian mummies we see and study in museums have been artificially preserved through the work of skilled embalmers, however, this resource-heavy burial treatment was largely reserved for members of royal families and high officials. The very large majority of the population were buried simply; wrapped in a few layers of textile or matting, placed in shallow graves in the sand, often positioned very close together and provided with simple offerings, mostly food and drink. The body fluids were evaporated by the hot, dry sand, retarding decomposition, which had much the same effect as the embalmers’ expertise. This process is called ‘natural’ mummification and is illustrated in the images above.
Mummification was utilised in ancient Egyptian burials, in some form, for over 4500 years and underwent changes at different time periods. Most Egyptologists agree that the pinnacle of the process was in the 21st Dynasty (1069-945 BC).
The complete mummification procedure took 70 days and incorporated several stages, all of which had important ritual significance and as well as having practical implications for the handling of dead bodies.
The main elements of the process are detailed below:
The deceased person's body was washed and purified. This took place as soon as possible after death as decomposition would begin immediately in the hot climate of Egypt.
First the brain (excerebration) was removed using a metal rod with a hook on the end that perforated the ethmoid bone in the nasal cavity. The brain was liquified and drained out of the skull through the nose. The brain was not preserved in the same way as other organs as the ancient Egyptians did not understand its purpose, attributing its functions instead to the heart. Organs were then removed from the body cavity (evisceration).
The most important organs to the ancient Egyptians were the lungs, liver, stomach and intestines, which were preserved, wrapped and placed in individual vessels called canopic jars. It was important that the heart remained in the body as the Egyptians believed it to be the centre of an individual’s intellect, emotion and memory.
The body was dried internally and externally using a sodium salt mixture called natron. The abdominal cavity was filled with bags of natron and the body was covered with a large quantity of the same substance. After 35 to 40 days, the natron was removed leaving the body desiccated and shrunken but maintaining soft tissue and skin.
The body was then anointed with coniferous oils and perfumes, which served both a ritualistic function to purify and bestow divine status on the deceased as well as a practical function to make the tough, dried out skin more supple. The skull and body cavities were then filled with materials such as mud, linen or molten resin.
The body was wrapped in layers of linen bandages, however the number of layers could vary widely between individuals. This variation does not seem to be related to status. The bandages assisted with maintaining the body’s integrity and, like the other stages of mummification, was also of important ritual significance acting like a cocoon from which the deceased would emerge, reborn in the afterlife.
To complete the mummy for burial it could be encased in a coffin or adorned by a mask, the most famous example of which is the golden mask of Tutankhamun. The earliest coffins date to around 3000 BC; they were simple boxes made of reeds, wood or clay and the body within was placed in a contracted or foetal position. During the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC), the preparation of the deceased required that the body was fully extended and therefore coffins became full length.
By the Middle Kingdom (2125-1650 BC), these rectangular coffins developed into the mummiform (anthropoid or human-shaped) coffins that dominate museum collections today. Over the thousands of years that ancient Egyptian coffins were in use, their shape and design evolved, however, their essential function remained the same, to protect the deceased.
The heart played an important role at the time of judgement of the deceased in front of the God of the Afterlife, Osiris. Egyptians believed the heart of the deceased would be weighed against the feather of truth. If the heart was heavier than the feather, it would prove that the deceased had not lived a virtuous life while on earth and therefore, would not be permitted to enter the afterlife to take their place with Osiris.
Ancient Egyptian sources on the treatment of the human body after death are scarce, with only a few inscriptions and funerary images. The few texts that have survived, such as the Ritual of Embalming, focus on the rituals and the more practical and gruesome aspects of mummification are largely ignored. The most important source material are the bodies themselves. The analytical study of mummies throughout the world has given historians and archaeologists a good understanding of how the mummification process was carried out as well as the changes in practice, and by implication, in beliefs.
The majority of mummies in the Nicholson collection were acquired during the 19th century when Victorian and colonial attitudes towards non-European cultures and peoples, including their dead, were considerably different to today. Mummies were often treated as spectacle, public and private unwrappings and dissections were relatively frequent. Mummies were also often decontextualized from their coffins, tombs and associated grave goods, the complete antithesis to modern archaeological practices. The gradual development of scientific approaches pioneered by researchers such as Margaret Murray and Australian-born Grafton Elliot Smith first took place in the early 20th century using then-new techniques such as X-ray.
Our most extant textual evidence for mummification comes from the classical writer Herodotus in the 5th century BC and Diodorus Siculus in the 1st century BC. These writers give details of the different types of mummification available in Egypt; however, it must be remembered that they were writing at a time of decline in the quality of mummification. The information from Herodotus and Diodorus has been compared to many mummies, confirming many of the elements of the classical texts. Recently, archaeologists have discovered an embalming workshop in one of the most important necropolises in Egypt, Saqqara. Workshops of this type were probably located all over Egypt close to burial grounds, but they have been overlooked by archaeologists trying to get to the tombs below. The information from this find has the potential to greatly add to our knowledge of how the ancient Egyptians treated their dead, especially the mummification procedures.
Egyptian mummies are one of the largest drawcards for museum visitors. The ownership and treatment of human remains in these institutions continues to be a controversial topic. Research involving ancient Egyptian mummies housed in museum collections around the world has advanced our knowledge of cultural attitudes to death and burial, as well as providing information on the history of disease, human biology and ancient medical treatments. The display of mummified human remains in museums is an important way of sharing this new knowledge to the widest possible audience; however it is essential to acknowledge and to communicate to visitors, that mummies were living people, not scientific objects or data, who had emotions, beliefs, superstitions and life experience.
In the last 20 years, there has been a significant number of advances in analytical techniques that can be utilised for the study of ancient human remains including an increase in specialty disciplines focused on their investigation, such as bioarchaeology, and the development of new photographic and 3D modelling techniques. The ethical balance between this research and public display of mummies and recognising the humanity and dignity of the deceased person(s) has become a point of contention and debate in many institutions. Recently, some studies have been criticised and have resulted in calls being made for a review of ethical and scientific standards relating to human remains. An example is a study of a 3000-year old mummy called Nesyamun housed at Leeds Museums and Galleries who has had his voice reproduced as a vowel-like sound that is akin to a sheep’s bleat. This was done by producing a 3D printed voice box. The researchers’ aim was to bring the mummy back to life but left many questioning the science behind the recreation of his voice and raising concerns about the ethics of the research.
With advancing analytical techniques able to provide new and more detailed data from the study of mummified human remains, it is possible to re-examine previous studies and advance our understanding of the past, asking new questions along the way. This research must be founded in ethical engagement with the person being studied. There is no final word on the ethics of mummy displays in museums and many modern cultural and spiritual beliefs affect the way in which individuals may choose to engage or not engage with these displays. Decisions we make today will, most likely, seem out of date in the future, just as decisions made by earlier generations seem out of step with our current practices. Increasingly, modern Egyptians are requesting to be involved in decisions and research relating to these people of their ancient past. It is essential to constantly reflect and refine the ways in which we research and present the lives and bodies of these people who lived merely a few thousand years ago.
When using objects from museum collections as part of your research it is essential to include the reference information just as you would for a written source. You need to cite the name of the object (or title of an art work), the associated date (or date range), where it comes from, as well as the museum identification number (also known as inventory or registration number) and the name of the collection or museum itself.
For calcite canopic jar (pictured above) the necessary components are:
In a picture caption, in-text reference or footnote you can write this information as:
Calcite canopic jar, Late Period (712 BC - 332 BC), Egypt. NMR.37.1-2, Chau Chak Wing Museum, The University of Sydney.
To reference the object and its information from our collection search in your reference list or bibliography you can use the same information but make sure to include the dedicated link to the object: https://www.sydney.edu.au/museums/collections_search/?record=ecatalogue.38712. Many referencing styles also require you to include the date you accessed the information.
The content on webpage is based on research conducted by Dr Conni Lord.
Featured image (top of the page): side panel from a wooden coffin, late first to early second century, Necropolis of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, Thebes, Egypt.