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EGYPT: What is a Mummy?

From Scooby-do to Hollywood block busters, the Egyptian mummy has been well and truly entrenched into the global consciousness as a scary and formidable monster.

So when we think of a mummy we naturally think of an Egyptian mummy wrapped in bandages and buried deep inside a pyramid.

However, you may be surprised to find out that mummies have been found in countries all over the world, from Greenland to China,  and from Denmark to Peru.

Put simply, a mummy is the body of a person that has been preserved after death.

These bodies become mummified by either natural environmental conditions or by the deliberate manipulation of highly skilled artisans.

Natural mummification

Natural Mummies are usually made in extreme climates where dry heat or freezing cold has stopped the process of decay. The most common conditions are as follows:

1. Bodies can be dried out in the severe cold of icy polar regions. For example, English sailors found in the Canadian Arctic who died in 1845 were cold mummified.

2. Bodies can be mummified by the intense heat in hot, dry desert sands. For example, sand mummies found in Egypt, dating back to 3200 B.C.

3. Bodies can be freeze-dried by a combination of cold temperatures and very dry winds in mountain caves and cliff tops. For example, an Inuit boy found on cliffs in Greenland is believed to have died in 1475.

4. Bodies can also sometimes be preserved in marshy bogs, where the body stays completely waterlogged so that no air is available for bacteria to grow and therefore the process of decay cannot even begin. For example, bog mummies found in Denmark have been carbon-dated to be nearly 2000 years old!

Man-made mummification

Mummies were made deliberately by using an embalming process. This process varied depending on the culture performing the mummification. There are various ways to achieve this form of preservation, but all methods involve some way of preventing decay setting in. Some are a combination of two or more methods.

1. Bodies can be dried out using smoke. For example,  Buddhist priests in Japan have been mummified in this way as late as 1868.

2. Body cavities can be stuffed with dry grass and herbs. For example,  inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands, used this technique and then buried the bodies in warm volcanic caves.

3. Bodies can be wrapped in layers of fabric or matting to absorb body fluids. For example  this method was used by the Chanca people from Peru from c.1000 – 1470 AD.

4. Most famously, the Egyptians preserved bodies using chemicals such as natron salts. Egyptian mummies date from 2,700BC to 200 AD.

Egyptian mummification
The most famous Ancient Egyptian text relating to mummification is called The Ritual of Embalming and describes the process of bandaging the mummy along with its corresponding rituals. However, there is more evidence on the subject from Herodotus' 'The History' - the first surgical description of Egyptian mummification where he briefly describes the process of evisceration.

According to Herodotus the brain was removed using an iron hook inserted through the nostrils and the brain cavity washed with drugs. 

A slit was made in the left side of the body to remove the internal organs. 

The cavity was then stuffed with spices and the body then dried for seventy days.

From the Middle Kingdom onwards, embalmers used salts to remove moisture from the body. 

The salt-like substance found on the banks of salt lakes - known as natron - dried out and preserved more flesh than bone. Once dried, mummies were ritualistically anointed with oils and perfumes.

The emptied body was then covered in natron, to speed up the process of dehydration and prevent decomposition. Often finger and toe protectors were placed over the mummy's fingers and toes to prevent breakage.

Next they were wrapped with strips of white linen to protect the body from being damaged. After that, they were wrapped in a sheet of canvas to further protect them.

Many sacred charms and amulets were placed in and around the mummy and the wrappings. This was intended to protect the mummy from harm and to give good luck to the Ka of the mummy.

Once preserved, they were laid to rest in a sarcophagus inside a tomb, where it was believed that the mummy would rest eternally. The mummy's mouth would later be opened in an ritual designed to symbolize breathing, giving rise to legends about resurrected mummies.

For related articles click onto:
EGYPT: Where is the river Nile?
EGYPT: Where is the source of the Nile?
EGYPT: What is a Mummy?

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