Disposing of the dead - Preservation

The earliest deliberately preserved bodies are those of the Chinchorro culture of northern Chile which date back about 7000 years. Today, the preserved bodies of famous political leaders, such as Lenin and Mao Tse Teung, demonstrate the continuing urge to defy death in some way.

Mummy from Chacalluta

 © Australian Museum

Andean

The bodies were so intact that they lacked neither hair, eyebrows, nor eyelashes. They were in clothes just as they had worn when alive. Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a Spanish conquistador captain and an Incan princess, 1609.

The earliest evidence for mummification in the central Andean region of South America (parts of present-day Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador) dates back 9000 years. However, the origins of mummification are unclear. Most of the mummies found to date are naturally mummified but this region is also home to the oldest deliberately preserved mummies in the world - the Chinchorro mummies of northern Chile which date back about 7000 years ago.

Many different cultures lived in the Andean region and the treatment of the dead varied considerably. Deliberate mummification was practised by some cultures but many were preserved by assisting the body to mummify using the natural conditions.

In the Middle Horizon period (1400 to 1000 years ago) the dead were wrapped in a seated, upright position (with the knees at the face) within mummy bundles. The body was placed on a basket or gourd and then wrapped with fabric. The positioning of the body and the fabric bindings served to draw out the decomposing fluids of the body and, with the dry conditions, resulted in the mummification of the body. False heads and human hair wigs were often attached to the bundles.

This practice continued through the Late Intermediate period (1000-1476), with both fabric and rope bindings used for these bundles. The mummies were often buried with every day items such as ceramics, clothing and other tools and utensils.

During the Incan Empire (1476-1534) the Spanish recorded detailed accounts of the mummified bodies of Incan sovereigns being paraded through the streets. The mummified bodies of sovereigns were cared for by attendants and were exhibited during religious and state ceremonies.

Grave Goods

Chimu culture ceramics were made during the Late Intermediate Period (1000-1476) where the practice of wrapping the deceased within a mummy bundle before burial was common. The Chimor kingdom extended from the river valleys of northern Peru to the central coast, and the ceramics occur across this large area. The ceramics are characteristically black in colour, which is the result of the technique of firing used in their manufacture. Vessels such as these were often placed in the grave with the deceased, along with other everyday items or items signifying wealth and prestige.

Egyptian

Gone am I, caught by the Underworld, yet cleansed and alive in the beyond...An Old Kingdom funerary text

Ancient Egyptians believed in three essential human elements, the ka (the 'double' of the person), the ba (the soul) and the akh (the spirit). To make the transition into the next life these elements had to be reunited in the body, so the body needed to be preserved.

The process of treating the body (which led to mummification) was established in the Early Dynastic period (5100 - 4686 years ago) and remained the preferred method into Roman times (2030 1400 years ago). The New Kingdom period (1567-1085 BCE) saw the practice at its most prominent.

The method used in the New Kingdom period was carried out by priests and took 70 days to complete. The internal organs (excluding the heart) were removed, then the brain through the nose, then the abdominal organs through a cavity cut into the left side of the abdomen. These organs were treated and dehydrated with natron (a natural mixture of carbonate, bicarbonate, chloride and sulphate of sodium) before being dried, anointed and immersed in molten resin.

The body was packed in natron and fragrant resins. To completely dehydrate the body took 40 days. The body cavities were then packed with a combination of resin-soaked linen, bags of spices or sawdust. The body was anointed with unguents before being treated with molten resin. Finally, the body was wrapped with bandages. Wrapping could take at least two weeks to complete and take up to 300 metres of cloth.
The Gods of death and afterlife

The gods and goddesses played a vital role in Egyptian life. The story of Osiris (the Egyptian god of death, resurrection and fertility) determined the ritual for preparing the dead for the next world. Embalming was the most common method used but was generally restricted to those who could afford it. 'Canopic' jars for storing the internal organs represented the four sons of Horus (son of Osiris and god of kingship). Anubis, either depicted as a jackal or a jackal-headed human, was the patron of embalming and responsible for leading the dead to the afterlife.

Scarab beetles were associated with eternal life. This is probably because of the way they were observed to spring out of the ground when born. Winged or heart-shaped scarab beetle amulets were often placed on the chest or over the heart of a mummy.

The journey to the afterlife involved intricate preparation. Boat models were commonly placed in tombs during the Middle Kingdom Period (3991 - 2786 years ago). They provided a means of transportation to the underworld.

A mummy that is over 2000 years old has been revealed by X-ray photography to be a man's body that shows early signs of arthritis and dental decay. The cause of the man's death is not known.

Interestingly, the scenes painted on his coffin refer to the deceased as a woman. The hieroglyphs on the coffin show the deceased making various offerings to the gods of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon, including Osiris and Isis. Other symbols important to this religious system are also represented. During the Saite Period, mass mummification was becoming the norm. However, previously, it was restricted primarily to the upper levels of Egyptian society. It may be that when the time came to place the mummy into the coffin for burial, one of a suitable size was not available, and therefore he was placed in a coffin originally designed for a woman. Alternatively, the mummy may have been removed from his original coffin at a later date.

Amulets

Amulets were believed to have special powers to protect the body and bring luck. Some amulets were worn in daily life, but there were also special funerary amulets which often featured important gods and goddesses. Funerary amulets and spell scripts were often placed in the wrappings of mummies to help on the journey to the afterlife.

Ushabti figures

Ushabti figures were made in the image of the deceased and acted as servants in the afterlife. They performed agricultural chores that followed the annual flooding of the Nile, which was important in the world of the living and of the dead.

Tian Chen mummies

Mummies from four burial sites between the Tian Shan ('Celestial Mountains') of north-west China and the Taklimakan Desert. They are of Indo-European appearance with red or blonde hair and wear colourful woollen clothing. They date from 4000 to 2300 years ago, and are in a better state of preservation than many Egyptian mummies. They were buried in the driest, saltiest part of Central Asia during winter, in bottomless coffins that allowed the freezing air to circulate. Their bodies froze and dried out before decay could set in.

Lady Cheng

Unearthed in 1972, Lady Cheng is the most well-preserved body ever uncovered. After 2100 years, her tissues were still elastic, and her joints partly movable. She was buried with ming-chi'i (spirit goods), miniatures of possessions, including an entourage of servants and exquisite lacquer ware. The complete preservation method is unknown. She had been buried within a set of three wooden coffins tightly fitted inside each other. The burial chamber was covered with charcoal and clay. The clay helped to make the tomb airtight, and the charcoal absorbed moisture. The yellow liquid inside her coffin contained mercury which may have helped preserve her tissues. The appropriate funeral rites for a noble woman would have helped slow down the growth of putrefactive bacteria. These included bathing the corpse with perfumed water and sacrificial wine, followed by tight wrapping in many layers of silk and linen cloths. Before placement in the coffin, iced water is placed under the bed to 'cool the corpse'. The coffin was sealed airtight prior to burial.

Indigenous Australia

In certain parts of Australia, mummification was sometimes one part of body disposal, and was not necessarily the final stage. The body of the deceased was sometimes placed on a platform in a tree and exposed to sunlight causing it to dry out. This could also be achieved through smoke-drying, or a combination of the two. Sometimes the internal organs were removed and the cavity packed with grass or other items. Sometimes the orifices were sewn shut to speed the preservation process. In many cases, the corpse was intended to be preserved only for a short time, until all mortuary and mourning rites were completed.

Lenin

Vladimir Illyich Lenin died on 24 January 1924. On the orders of Joseph Stalin, his body was preserved for posterity by using a secret embalming method. His internal organs were removed. His body was then injected with formalin and immersed in a formalin bath. His body was then dried and repeatedly immersed in a bath of glycerine, potassium acetate, water and quinine chloride. Lenin wears a waterproof suit under his uniform that holds in the embalming fluid, and his hands and head are bathed in fluid twice a week. His body is still on display in a specially constructed mausoleum.

Society Islands

In 1777, Captain James Cook described viewing the preserved body of Tee, a Tahitian chief:

"We found the body...entire in every part... putrefaction seemed scarcely to have begun... though the climate is one of the hottest, and Tee had been dead above four months"

Captain James Cook, 10 September, 1777

In the Society Islands the bodies of chiefs who died naturally were preserved through the removal of internal organs and the placement of cloth inside the body to absorb the body fluids. Coconut oil was also applied to the skin. The body was placed in public view, attended by a priest, for a considerable time and offerings of fruit, food and flowers were made.

 


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