The Art of Mummification

The art of (deliberate) mummification is a long, labor-intensive process, performed by many cultures from across the ancient world.

Ancient Egypt usually comes to mind; however, mummies have been discovered in Iran, China, Africa, the Canary Islands, and Libya among others.

Ancient Egyptians believed that the spirit ka needed a “double” of the deceased person, which would remain in the tomb. The ba, or “soul”, was free to fly out of the tomb and return to it. And the akh, perhaps translated as “spirit”, had to travel through the Underworld to the Final Judgment and entrance to the Afterlife.

The mummified body was needed to maintain the visual expression of the person during life, however, more recent research now suggests that the process was to steer the body towards divinity, by ensuring a form of the deceased that the gods would accept.

The 70-day long process of deliberate Ancient Egyptian mummification was performed by the priests of Anubis. The first step is the removing of the brain, using a specialised hook inserted into the nose. The brain tissue was then ‘scrambled’, which allowed for it to be easily pulled and drained out.

Next, an incision on the left side of the abdomen was made and the internal organs were removed and dried. The lungs, stomach, liver and intestines were placed inside four different canopic jars. The purpose of which was to ensure the dead had access to them in the afterlife. These jars were carved from limestone or made of pottery and generally had heads of specific gods (the four sons of Horus-the god of the sky and the one who protects the pharaoh) and were protected by the corresponding goddesses.

The lungs were placed in the Hapi jar and was protected by the goddess Nephthys. The baboon-headed Hapi represents the North, while the human-headed god Imsety represented the South, and his jar housed the liver which was guarded by the goddess Isis. The east and the west, represented by Duamutef and Qebehsenuef respectively held stomach and intestines protected by Neith and Serqet.

The heart was returned to the body cavity. Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was central to the persons intelligence and entire being. The brain was believed to be simply a filler for the skull and was thrown away. The body was then rinsed and quickly packed with salt (natron) and left to dry for 70 days. By the 40th day, the body would have been shriveled and deformed, so it was packed with sand and/or linen to regain the human form before it continued to dry for another month.

After the 70-day drying period, the body was covered in resin and wrapped with hundreds of yards of linens. There could be several individual layers of resin and linen, often laden with written prayers.

Amulets were placed among the wrappings to protect the person in the afterlife. A common amulet abundantly found in Ancient Egyptian mummies, the Wedjat eye (eye of Horus), was used as a protection from evil forces. Jewelry and other small treasures were wrapped with mummies depending on how rich the person was in life. Often the wrapped mummies were painted with elaborate scenes or symbols, before being placed in a sarcophagus for deposition in a tomb.

In the afterlife, the deceased would need servants of all types including bakers, furniture makers, beer makers, bathers, cleaners, and countless other servants. Shabtis are small statues in human form that ancient Egyptians believed would come to life to serve the dead person in the afterlife. The wealthier you were, the more servants you would have.

Another example of deliberate mummification dates from around 7,000 years ago in what is now northern Chile and southern Peru, where the Chinchorro culture first began intentionally mummifying bodies in a process similar to the Ancient Egyptians. The Chinchorro also used sticks inserted into the limbs, often adding a wig and covering the face with clay masks. The process was performed on all classes of people, not just the wealthy.

The Iboloi, in the Philippines, start the mummification process before the person dies. Those near death are given a very salty drink to help expel bodily fluids, likely causing intense vomiting. Once the person is dead, they are wrapped in blankets and placed by a fire to ‘drain’ any remaining body fluids over the course of several days.

After the draining period, the body is then placed outside to dry in the hot sun, where the skin is removed and the body buried in wooden boxes. In some cases, the Iboloi mummies also had the internal organs removed.

While deliberate mummification is the careful drying and preparation of a body to allow the soul to re-enter the body after death, naturally occurring mummification happens in a variety of situation. Extreme temperatures, or dry, low oxygen and hyper acidic environments can all create natural mummies.

One of the most famous examples is Otzi the Iceman, who was discovered by mountain climbers in 1991 in the Italian Alps. Otzi lived and died around 3200 BC, but he was likely murdered or ritually sacrificed, as he had an embedded arrowhead in his shoulder along with several other injuries. Shortly after his death, his body was covered with snow, preserving most of the soft tissue and remains for 5,000 years.

The oldest (unintentional) mummy in North America was found near Fallon Nevada, when it was discovered wrapped in a tule stalk mat in a shallow grave inside the naturally dry Spirit Cave. Radiocarbon dating determined the mummy to be over 10,000 years old.

Whether unintentional or deliberate, mummified bodies stand the test of time. Freezing a moment in history that endures long after death.

Written by Julie St Jean

Header Image Credit : Shutterstock

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