Mummies is a term that today is used to describe natural or artificially preserved bodies, though traditionally the word was used specifically to describe the bodies of ancient Egyptians where dehydration of the tissues was used to prevent putrefaction.

The word is derived from the Persian or Arabic word mumia (or mumiya), which means “pitch” or “bitumen”. It originally referred to a black, asphalt-like substance, thought to have medicinal properties and eagerly sought as a cure for many ailments, that oozed from the “Mummy Mountain” in Persia.

There was such a demand for this substance that an alternative source was eventually sought and, because the ancient Egyptian mummies often have a blackened appearance, they were believed to possess similar properties to munia. Hence, during the medieval and later times, they were used as medicinal ingredient. The term mumia, or “mummy” was therefore extended to these bodies and has continued in use up until our present day.

Mummification of bodies was originally a natural process in Egypt and elsewhere, where the dryness of the sand in which the body was buried, the heat or coldness of the climate, or the absence of air in the burial helped to produce unintentional or “natural” mummies. These processes have produced mummies not only in Egypt, but in South America, Mexico, the Alps, Central Asia, the Canary Islands, the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. Another type of natural mummification also occurred in northwestern Europe where bodies have been preserved when buried in peat bogs or fens containing lime.

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In some of these areas, the natural process was early on intentionally developed by enhancing the environmental conditions. Sun, fire or other sources of heat were sometimes used to dehydrate the bodies, while at other times, the bodies were cured using smoke. Also, natural material such as grass could be used to surround the body, fill its cavities or seal the burial place so that, by the exclusion of air, decomposition and further deterioration was prevented.

Our Sources and Research on Mummification

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What we know about Egyptian mummification comes from a number of sources, including the archaeological evidence provided by the mummies themselves, paleopathological studies of the bodies, painted and carved representations in tomb scenes and elsewhere that depict some stages of the mummification process, and textual references in Egyptian and other classical era accounts. However, there exists no known Egyptian description of the technical processes involved in mummification. No paintings or carvings provide an extant, complete record of mummification, though some wall scenes in the tombs of Thoy and Amenemope (tombs 23 and 41 on the West Bank at Thebes, respectively) and vignettes painted on some coffins and canopic jars show some stages in the mummification process. However, the earliest known accounts of mummification that are relatively complete occur in the writings of two specific An older x-ray of the head of Ramesses IIGreek historians (Herodotus from the fifth century BC and Diodorus Siculus from the first century BC).

Nevertheless, within Egyptian literature, there is scattered references to mummification and the associated religious rituals. In one text, called the “Ritual of Embalming”, is provided a set of instructions to the officials who perform the rites that accompany the mummification process, as well as a collection of prayers and incantations to be invoked after each rite. This ritual is specifically set out in two papyri, probably copied from the same source and both dated to the Roman period. They are the Papyrus Boulaq 3, now in the Cairo Museum, and Papyrus 5158 in the Louvre. There are also references to the embalming ceremonies in the Rhind Papyri and in other literary sources, including inscriptions on stelae. However, it is Herodotus’s account that remains the most complete regarding the mummification process.

In addition to classical texts and references, a surprising amount of modern scientific research has been conducted in regards to mummies. Sometimes,. these have even included multidisciplinary studies of mummified remains which have supplied new information about the process of mummification itself, as well as disease, diet, living and working conditions and even family relationships. For example, the use of scanning electron microscopes has been used to identify insects that attack mummies, histology and electron microscopy have supplied evidence about the success or failure of individual mummification techniques, and thin layer and gas liquid chromatography have isolated and characterized the substances that were applied to the mummy bandages.

Results of a ct or Cat Scan of an unidentified female mummy.There have also been several techniques that have informed us of the diseases in mummies. As early as the 1970s, radiography, which is a nondestructive method, became a major investigative procedure and later the additional use of computerized tomography (CT) became standard in most radiological investigations of mummies. There are also dental studies of mummies that have provided evidence about age, diet, oral health and disease. Paleohistology, which involves the rehydration, fixing and selective staining of sections of mummified tissue, together with paleopathology, which is the study of disease in ancient people, have developed considerably since the techniques were originally pioneered in Cairo earlier in the twentieth century by M. A. Ruffer.

Today, endoscopy has almost completely replaced the need to autopsy a mummy, since this technique allows the researcher to gain firsthand evidence about embalming methods and to obtain tissue samples for further study without destroying the mummy. Histology, transmission electron microscopy (TEM), immunohistochemistry and immunocytochemistry can then be used to search for evidence of disease in the tissue samples.

Today, we also use DNA, rather than the older studies of blood groups, to help identify individual family relationships and future studies of this type may even help identify the origins and migrations of ancient populations. DNA analysis may also help identify bacterial, fungal, viral and parasitic disease.

In the future, current studies on the process of deterioration may also help curators and conservators in preserving their mummy collections.

Egyptian Mummification

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A mummy preserved by natural mummification in the hot sands of EgyptIn Egypt, a combination of climate and environment, as well as the people’s religious beliefs and practices, led first to unintentional natural mummification and then to true mummification. In Egypt, and particularly ancient Egypt, there was a lack of cultivatable land and so the early Egyptians chose to bury their dead in shallow pit-graves on the edges of the desert, where the heat of the sun and the dryness of the sand created the natural mummification process. Even this natural process produced remarkably well preserved bodies. Often, these early natural mummified bodies retained skin tissue and hair, along with a likeness of the person’s appearance when alive.

Prior to about 3400 BC, all Egyptians were buried in pit graves, whether rich or poor, royal or common. Later however, as prosperity and the advance in building techniques improved, more elaborate tombs for those of high social status were constructed. Yet at the same time, these brick lined underground burial chambers no longer provided the conditions which led to natural mummification in the older pit graves. Now however, mummification had been established in the religious belief system so that the deceased’s ka, or spirit, could return to and recognize the body, reenter it, and thus gain spiritual sustenance from the food offerings. Hence, a method was sought to artificially preserve the bodies of the highest classes. However, preservation of the body was probably also required due to the longer period that it took to actually inter the body, as grave goods and even the tomb itself received final preparations.

What we sometimes called true mummification involves a sophisticated process that was developed from experimentation. The best example of this process is Egyptian mummification, which involved the use of chemical and other agents. The experimentation that led to true mummification probably lasted several hundred years. Such efforts may have begun as early as the 2nd Dynasty. J. E. Quibell, an Egyptologist who worked in some primitive Egyptian necropolises, found a large mass of corroded linen between the bandages and bones of a body interred in a cemetery at Saqqara that perhaps evidences an attempt to use natron or another agent as a preservative by applying it to the surface of the skin.

An unknown mummy from the 1881 cache of mummies found in the Valley of the KingsAnother early technique involved the covering of the body in fine linen and then coating this with plaster to carefully preserve the deceased’s body shape and features, in particular the head. In 1891, W. M. Flinders Petrie discovered a body at Meidum dating to the 5th Dynasty in which there had been some attempt to preserve the body tissue as well as to recreate the body form. Bandages were carefully molded to reproduce the shape of the torso. Arms and legs were separately wrapped and the breasts and genitals were modeled in resin-soaked linen. Nevertheless, decomposition had taken the body beneath the bandages, and only the skeleton remained.

Only as early as the 4th Dynasty do we actually find convincing evidence of successful, true mummification. The mother of Khufu, the king who built the Great Pyramid at Giza, also had a tomb at Giza. Though her body has not been found, in her tomb was discovered preserved viscera which could probably be attributed to this queen. An analysis of these viscera packets proved that they had been treated with natron, the agent that was successfully used in later times to dehydrate the body tissue. Hence, this find demonstrates that the two most important components of mummification, evisceration of the body and dehydration of the tissues, was already in use by royalty. Afterwards, mummification continued to be practiced in Egypt for some three thousand years, lasting until the end of the Christian era.

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