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Afterlife: Embalming the Egyptian Way

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 24 Nov 2015

Australian connections in the science of the mummy.

Skull X-ray: E19467 BB

Skull X-ray: E19467 BB
Photographer:  © Australian Museum

Afterlife is a blog series containing stories related to burial and mourning practices in different cultures. 

Looking at a mummy on display was an organic part of “Egyptomania” in the 19th century and beyond. It was a mix of curious, exciting, bizarre and racially tinted emotions that fascinated viewers.

Modern enthusiasm for collecting and possessing mummies can be traced back to Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns (1798–1799), which generated a vivid artistic and scholarly interest by European societies. The early publications sparked international curiosity about mummies and other aspects of ancient Egyptian culture.

Soon, mummies as “artefacts” began arriving in western countries as part of show-business and “extreme” curiosity. An innovative American even displayed a mummy in a lolly shop to entice his customers. In Victorian England, unwrapping and observing mummies entertained aristocrats and people of means. Many mummies were destroyed in this process and demand for them sent entrepreneurs and charlatans to Egypt to replenish supply.

But scholarly interest was also growing to understand the role of embalming in Egyptian funerary practice and broader culture. Now we know that proper embalming was to preserve the body by dehydration and to protect against pests, mostly insects. Almost all procedures aimed to make the body dry (removing organs rich in liquids) and insulate it by wrapping, salting and coating in gum as a waterproofing and antibacterial substance.

It just happened that it was our own Professor Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937), a New South Welshman educated at Sydney University, Australian-British anatomist, who worked out, through his research, the essential aspects of embalming in ancient Egypt. For the first nine years of the 19th century Smith held the Chair of Anatomy at the Cairo School of Medicine where he examined mummies and was the first scholar to use x-rays in his studies.

In accordance with ancient texts and customs, brain removal was the first step in the process of embalming. For this the ethmoid bone located at the roof of the nose and separating the brain from the nasal cavity was broken with a hooked instrument. The same tool was used to remove the brain and associated tissue.

This outwardly gruesome procedure was to prevent the body from decay. But since Smith’s original study the evidence of brain removal (broken ethmoid bone) is considered integral in a proper embalming process and, by extension, evidence of authenticity. And so, our Egyptian soldier is a proper, if not a high-ranked mummy.

Smith promoted the idea of the European-Mediterranean origin of human species and held that Egypt was the cradle of all cultural innovations and the ultimate spring of human civilisation, just as the signs of the human origin in Africa began emerging.

Additional information:

Commoners were prepared for burial in a simpler way. Usually only guts and abdominal organs were dissolved and drained through the rectum.

Reference:

Meiya Sutisno. Unveiling “Muharib” the Unknown Ancien Egyptian Warrior. Unpublished Report: The Forensic Face and Body Mapping Unit: University of Technology Sydney. 2014.