Mummy Hand Click to enlarge image
Ancient Egyptian mummified female human hand. The linen bandages have been over-modelled with resin. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

What is a ‘mummy’?

The word ‘mummy’ refers to the dead body of a person or an animal that has not decayed due to specific natural or artificial conditions. The word itself is derived from the Persian/Arabic word mummiya, meaning ‘tar’ or ‘bitumen’. When the Arabs encountered the Egyptian mummies in the seventh century CE they thought they were covered in tar. Although the Egyptians did occasionally use tar in the mummification process, most mummies were coated in dark resins, which gave the skin a black colour.

The Egyptians referred to dead bodies as khat and used the word sah for bodies that had undergone the rites of mummification.

The origins of mummification

The traditional view was that it began with the preservation of Old Kingdom royals about 2600 BCE and developed from the observation of bodies that had been naturally preserved in hot desert sands. New evidence shows that artificial mummification had its origins much earlier. The recent excavations of ‘working class’ burials at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt (dating to about 3500 BCE) show that a variety of complex burial practices existed at this time, including the ritual extraction of internal organs and wrapping of specific parts of the body.