Mummification Procedures

No ancient Egyptian text describing the process of mummification survives today. The best written sources for such information are the Classical authors Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, writing in the fifth and first centuries BC. Herodotus' account illustrates three different levels of mummification, distinguished by cost. According to Herodotus, in the ideal, top-quality method:

As much as possible of the brain is removed via the nostrils with an iron hook, and what cannot be reached with the hook is washed out with drugs; next, the flank is opened with a flint knife and the whole contents of the abdomen removed; the cavity is then thoroughly cleaned and washed out, firstly with palm wine and again with an infusion of ground spices. After that, it is filled with pure myrrh, cassia, and every other aromatic substance, excepting frankincense, and sewn up again, after which the body is placed in natron, covered entirely over, for seventy days-never longer. When this period is over, the body is washed and then wrapped from head to foot in linen cut into strips and smeared on the underside with gum, which is commonly used by the Egyptians instead of glue. In this condition, the body is given back to the family, who have a wooden case made, shaped like a human figure, into which it is put.

The basic procedures of mummification were developed during the Old Kingdom (ca. 2625-2130 BC). First, an incision was made in the left side, allowing removal of the lungs, liver, intestines, and stomach. The heart, considered the source of intelligence, was essential for continued existence in the afterlife and had to remain with the body.

The other organs were preserved, wrapped separately, and placed in four vessels, known as canopic jars, that were stored near the coffin in the tomb. Following evisceration, the body was filled and covered with natron, a salt occurring naturally in the Egyptian desert. When the body was removed from the natron, it was filled with resin-soaked linen and wrapped.

Innovations improved the mummification process, producing better preserved mummies in less time. Originally, the body was immersed in a solution of natron, which, in some cases, required over 270 days for complete desiccation. During the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1980-1630 BC), embalmers began to use dry natron instead, allowing for quicker, more thorough dehydration, typically in about forty days. Another innovation of the Middle Kingdom was the removal of the brain, though the process would remain experimental until the New Kingdom (ca. 1539-1075 BC). At that time, removal of the brain became standard practice, accomplished by inserting a metal implement through the nostril, breaking the cribiform plate. Also in the New Kingdom, molten resin was poured into the body cavities, which were then packed with linen, discouraging bacterial growth.

The Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1075-656 BC) represented the apex of the embalmer's art, introducing many changes to the technique of mummification.

Linen was placed in the cranium and other cavities prior to covering the body with natron and then removed upon completion of the dehydration. This practice was intended to maintain the shape of the body and to counteract the inevitable shrinkage during the dehydration process. When it was removed from the natron, the body was washed and re-packed with materials including sawdust, resinated linen, and plant matter in order to retain a natural shape.

Further attempts to render a lifelike appearance involved covering the eyes with cloth pads or stone replicas and inserting subcutaneous packing. The viscera were prepared as in previous periods, though they were no longer put in canopic jars. Rather, the packets were replaced in the body cavity.

During the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods (ca. 332 BC-AD 395),(3.48) many of the innovations introduced earlier were abandoned in the rush to mummify more people in less time and for less expense. With respect to mummification in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, the old saying holds true: you got what you paid for. Herodotus described the "second quality" mummification procedure as follows:

No incision is made and the intestines are not removed, but oil of cedar is injected with a syringe into the body through the anus, which is afterwards stopped up to prevent the liquid from escaping. The body is then cured in natron for the prescribed number of days, on the last of which the oil is drained off. The effect of it is so powerful that as it leaves the body it brings with it the viscera in a liquid state, and as the flesh has been dissolved by the natron, nothing of the body is left but the skin and bones. After this treatment, it is returned to the family without further attention.

The focus of the process shifted from the chemical preservation of the body to the cosmetic presentation of the mummy. The brain was no longer removed, and bodies were often incomplete or disarticulated. Missing limbs were routinely restored with linen, mud, or wood. Regardless of the condition of the body, the mummy was ornately wrapped and decorated, typically with complex geometric patterns.

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