How were ancient Egyptians mummified?

The Egyptians had a long tradition of mummifying their wealthy dead. 

Museum Mummy

Gregg Hardiman © Australian Museum

Various techniques were used from at least the Old Kingdom, about 2600 BCE, until early Christian times when the practice was abandoned.

The most complicated mummification process

The technique used on royals and high officials from the New Kingdom until the start of the Late Period, about 1550 to 664 BCE, is considered the best and most complicated mummification process.

Preserving the organs

The first step in this technique involved the removal and preservation of most of the internal organs. The lungs, stomach, liver and intestines were separately embalmed and placed into canopic jars. These jars were often decorated with one of the four animal-headed sons of the god Horus, with each son protecting a particular organ. Preservation of these organs was important as they allowed the dead person to breathe and eat in the afterlife. However, usually only the wealthy could afford to have their organs embalmed and stored in this way. After about 1000 BCE the practice changed. The internal organs were then generally wrapped and put back into the body or bound with it, or put in boxes rather than being placed in jars. Canopic jars were still placed in the person's tomb but they were solid or empty and served a symbolic purpose.

Preserving the body

The heart, representing the centre of all knowledge and emotions, was usually left untouched inside the body while the brain was often thrown away. The body was then treated with natron (a carbonate salt collected from the edges of desert lakes) which acted as a drying agent, absorbing water from the body so as to prevent further decay. After 40 days, the natron was removed from the skin and the body cavities were filled with linen, natron pouches, herbs, sawdust, sand or chopped straw. The skin and first few layers of linen bandages were then covered with a resinous coating. The rest of the body was then wrapped, often with the inclusion of amulets and with a mask placed over head of the mummy. The whole process lasted about 70 days.

Those that couldn’t afford embalming generally had their bodies ‘preserved’ through drying in hot desert sands or by covering them with resin.

Bringing the dead to life in the 21st century

Scientific and technological advances mean that it’s now possible to gain enormous amounts of information from mummies without the usual physical and ethical problems associated with studying human remains. Mummies can be examined using techniques such as CT scans, MRIs and x-rays or an endoscopic camera can be inserted through a small opening to see directly inside. In some cases, soft tissue can be removed from the mummy without causing much damage. The information recovered is bringing the dead to life in ways never thought possible. Details include the gender, age and health of a person, how they were mummified and whether objects were included beneath the wrapping. Also, if soft tissue can be removed, biological information on DNA, genes and diseases can be revealed.


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