The art of mummification is one of the great achievements of ancient Egyptian civilization. There was not a single, unchanging system; over the course of some three thousand years of history, the process of mummification was gradually refined, with occasional setbacks as well. Moreover, different grades of mummification were offered,with the more perfect techniques being available for those who could afford them. The ideal process of mummification might be considered the process employed for elite burials from the New Kingdom through the Roman period.
As in nearly all other aspects of Egyptian society, it is impossible to separate ritual from the practical aspects of mummification. Officially, mummification took seventy days, with perhaps forty days being strictly necessary for the physical preservation the body. Supernatural purifications and protections of the body were considered essential to the satisfactory creation of the mummy. On another level, the seventy days seem to have had the character of an official mourning period, with physical preparations beginning just a few days after death and burial being performed only at the end of this period.
When the body was taken from the family for mummification, it was first taken to a tent known as the “ibu” for purification. This tent was erected near the burial place with good access to water. It is likely that a small quantity of natron was dissolved into the water used in purification. Natron is a desiccant that appears naturally in several places in Egypt, containing sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, and typically some measure of sodium chloride and sodium sulfate. Ritually, natron was considered an agent of purification.
The body was then taken to another tent or temporary building known as the “wabet.” Here the organs that decayed the quickest were removed. A hook was inserted through the nose, breaking through the thin layer of bone behind it, and then fragments of brain were removed systematically, if not always completely. No effort of any kind to preserve the brain matter has ever been found, and it is believed that the brain was simply thrown away. It is worth observing that the functions now known to reside in the brain were ascribed by the Egyptians to the heart, and there, every effort was made to preserve the heart in its natural place.
For the removal of the internal organs, the body had to be cut open. Although an important part of mummification, this was viewed as an act of violence upon the dead, and so, it was performed by someone with low standing, often someone who had previously been convicted of a crime. One of the other embalmers painted a line for the incision on the left side of the body; the lowly cutter used a flint or obsidian knife to make the cut, and then he was chased away.
With the body opened, the embalmers then removed the stomach, intestines, liver, and lungs. These were kept, and preserved separately. During the New Kingdom, the preserved viscera were placed in the tomb in four containers known as the Canopic Jars, each under the protection of one of the four sons of Horus. In later periods they were wrapped and then placed back inside of the body. Either way, these organs were preserved for the deceased without being permitted to accelerate decay.
The embalmers then washed the body cavity, and then laid out the corpse for drying. Natron was used both internally and externally to dry the body out thoroughly. Internal use typically employed small linen sacks of natron placed inside the body cavity, while external use involved completely covering the corpse in a pile of natron. The body was then allowed to dry for about forty days.
When the body was dry, the interior was again washed and then various materials like cloth, dust and even sawdust were used to fill the body cavity. Here, the purpose was only for appearances; throughout the history of mummification, there was a desire to make the deceased seem more like a living person. During the 21st Dynasty, this impulse led to the effort to introduce material underneath the skin as well. When successful, this experiment led to striking reproductions of the deceased’s appearance, but it could also result in severe distortion.
The body was reasonably stiff but could still be posed. It was bathed in oils, such as cedar oil, and this improved the embalmers’ ability to move the body’s limbs. Perfumes like cinnamon and myrrh were employed to cover the smell. Resins obtained from evergreen trees were also employed extensively, not only externally but also in the cavities in the head and torso. Then the body was given the position it would occupy in the coffin: for most, the arms would lie at the side, but for kings they would be crossed over the chest, and for royal women one arm would be over the chest.
Any additional steps for the appearance of the body were made at this point. Such steps could include the placement of false eyes, the treatment of the hair, and even the painting of eyebrows, if the real ones had fallen out. The body was then covered in resin and then taken out for wrapping.
The wrapping of a mummy was carried out with strips of linen, typically made from other clothing or sheets. During the first wrapping, the arms and legs were wrapped separately; then, with a second wrapping, the legs were bound together and the arms were bundled with the torso, creating the traditional form of the mummy. While the body was wrapped, additional spells were recited and amulets were placed within the linen weave.
Prior to the Roman period, the mummy would also typically be adorned with a mask. Non-royal masks were made of cartonnage, which used linen in much the same way that papier mache uses paper. During the Roman period, this mask was replaced by a painting of the deceased. The mummy was then complete, ready for placement in its coffin.
Even among elite burials, there were many variations on this process, and the results have shown equal variation. Some, such as the mummies of pharaohs Seti I and Ramesses II, have shown remarkable preservation. Others were less successful, and have been discovered only as bones. Still, enough specimens have been found with sufficient quality to consider Egyptian mummification a highly successful procedure.
Brier, Bob. Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art. Quill, 1994.
David, Rosalie. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. Oxford, 1998.
Taylor, John H. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. University of Chicago Press, 2001.