The Evolution of Mummification; part one

Although the ancient Egyptians were not the only people to mummify their dead, it is their culture above all which springs to mind when we think about this fascinating burial practice. We don’t know exactly when or why the ancient Egyptians first developed mummification, but recent evidence suggests that it was very early in their history, and it is likely that it was closely tied up with their view that death was not the end.

Although the Egyptians are sometimes accused of being preoccupied with death, we could instead see their beliefs as evidence that they looked forward to a long and happy afterlife.

Predynastic pit burial, circa 3400 BC, recreated in the British Museum

Prehistoric burials show no signs of intentional mummification. The body was placed in a pit dug in the sand in a contracted or semi-contracted position (foetal position), facing either east (towards the rising sun) or west (towards the setting sun). However, there is some evidence that even at this very early stage people were already concerned about preserving the body for the afterlife, and new evidence from Badari and Naqada II graves suggests that towards the end of the Predynastic Period people had begun to experiment with resins to mummify their dead.

Early Dynastic Mummification

By the Early Dynastic Period, bodies were wrapped in linen and placed in rectangular clay or wooden coffin in a flexed position with their arms by their sides. Some bodies from the First Dynasty were placed on beds (a practice revived in the Greco-Roman Period). The bandages used to wrap bodies may have been treated with natron and resins to help preserve the body, but the viscera were not removed. Unfortunately, mummies from this time period have not been properly tested, and were not well looked after when discovered.

The earliest example of a royal mummy is the linen wrapped arm of Djer (or possibly his wife) which was discovered by Petrie in 1900. He sent it to the Cairo Museum, where the curator removed the bracelets which were still in place, but then threw away the arm!

Thankfully, Quibell took greater care of a Second Dynasty mummy of a noble woman which he recovered in 1911. The body of the woman was most likely dried out with natron and washed. She was then placed on her side in a flexed position and each of her limbs wrapped separately.

Old Kingdom Mummification

By the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians were practicing “true mummification”. The body was cleaned and the viscera removed via a vertical incision in the left side of the body. The cavity was cleaned, the body dried with natron and then the cavity packed with linen and resin. After around forty days the body was wrapped in linen bandages before being sealed using a variety of resins and oils.

The linen wrapping helped protect the body, but also held magical amulets in place and allowed the embalmers to return a more lifelike shape to the deceased. Plaster could be applied and painted, in particular to recreate the face of the deceased. By the end of the Old Kingdom simple spiralling bandaging replaced the technique of moulding bandages to reshape the body.

The earliest known example of canopic jars (which were intended to hold the viscera of the deceased) were found in the burial of Queen Hetepheres (the mother of Khufu). Her viscera were inside the jars, wrapped in linen and placed in a weak solution of natron and water to preserve them.

First Intermediate Period

The head of Djehutynakht, 11th Dynasty (copyright Marcus Cyron)

There are few mummies from the First Intermediate Period. They seem to have followed late Old Kingdom procedures fairly closely. However, an unusual mummy from Deir el Bersha belonging to the eleventh dynasty nomarch called Djehutynakht revived the earlier method of moulded wrappings and the addition of paint to the exterior surface to depict a detailed likeness of his face. This mummy is also notable as it is evident that the brain was removed through the nose, a development generally more associated with Middle Kingdom (and later) mummies.

Middle Kingdom Mummification

During the Middle Kingdom embalmers continued to remove the viscera via an incision in the left side of the body, but they also began to experiment with using cedar or juniper oil as an enema to dissolve the organs. Numerous female relatives of Montuhotep II were prepared for burial in this manner. In all of these mummies, the brain seems to have been left in place, but the bodies are so well preserved that elaborate tattoos are still visible on their skin.

Embalmers also experimented with the position of the arms during this period. In some cases, the arms lie at the side of the body (as before), but we also see instances (such as the mummy of Wah) where the arms are folded across the chest. The brain was often, but not always, removed through the nose. Bandaging becomes more thorough, with an additional layer forming a cocoon around the whole body. The body and the face are each covered with a shroud, and a cartonage mask placed over the face.

One unusual burial from the time is the mass grave of around sixty soldiers interred near the Mortuary Temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri. These bodies were given an abbreviated mummification. They were cleaned and dried by the application of sand, wrapped in linen with their viscera intact, and buried together. Many of the bodies bear scars and wounds, and one even has the arrowhead that killed him protruding from his chest.

The Evolution of Mummification; part two

  • Bard, Kathryn (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
  • Grajetzki, W (2003) Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt
  • Ikram, Salima (1997) Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt
  • Ikram, Salima and Dodson, Aidan (1998) The Mummy in Ancient Egypt
  • Jones J, Higham TFG, Oldfield R, O’Connor TP, Buckley SA (2014) Evidence for Prehistoric Origins of Egyptian Mummification in Late Neolithic Burials. PLoS ONE 9(8): e103608. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103608
  • Kemp, Barry J (1991) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation

Copyright J Hill 2016