sarcophagus containing the mummy of Queen Ahmose Nefertari.
The robber slithered through a tight hole into
a small chamber. The lantern he carried flickered, showing the
interior of the dusty room. In the center lay a big stone box.
Smiling, the thief pulled out a small crowbar. Working quickly,
but quietly, he managed to remove the heavy lid. Beneath was
a wooden coffin shaped roughly like a man. The portrait of the
occupant as he appeared in life was painted on the cover. Using
the crowbar, the lid was off in seconds. The robber found himself
staring into an ancient, bandaged face. Using his knife, the
thief cut through the burial shrouds to find a heavy golden
amulet. He ripped it off the dead mans neck and leered
at the glinting gold. Suddenly, bandaged, knarled hands lashed
out. With supernatural strength the robber was grabbed by the
throat and hauled into the casket. The strangled cries of the
mummys most recent victim echoed through the theater as
the camera panned up to show a string of hieroglyphics upon
the wall. The sub-titles read, "Death will come quickly to those
that violate my tomb..."
In Hollywood pictures, both old and new, mummies
rise from the dead to avenge the violation of their tombs. In
reality, no mummy has ever been charged with murder.
What is a mummy anyway? A guy with a lot of bandages
wrapped around him?
When living things die, they quickly begin to
decay. Decay is caused by minute bacteria that use the organic
material found in a body as food. While a body is living, it
has defenses against attack by bacteria. After death, the cell
warriors and antibodies that protect the body can nolonger defend
it. Depending on the temperature and humidity, a body left out
in the open for a few months can be reduced to a pile of bones
as the soft tissues are consumed by bacteria, insects and other
A body is mummified to protect it against decay.
Although we usually think of a mummy as a human being, animals
and even plants can be mummified. Many cultures around the world
practiced mummification of at least some of their dead, including
the Paraca Indians of Peru and the Guanches of the Canary Islands.
The most famous mummies are associated with ancient Egypt, however.
The word mummy actually is not Egyptian as many
people suppose. It comes from the Arabic word mumiyah,
which refers to a body preserved by the use of wax or bitumen.
The term was actually applied incorrectly, as the Egyptians
did not use either of these methods to make their mummies.
The Egyptians practiced mummification because they
believed that after death a person's spirit survived. This spirit
they called the Ka. The Ka needed some physical resting
place. A mummified body could be one resting place for the Ka.
Interestingly enough, the Egyptians also believed the Ka could
inhabit a stone statue, or even a painting. The tombs of the richest
and most powerful people were provided with both of these in case
the mummy got destroyed.
In order to keep a body from decaying, it is necessary
to stop the bacteria from invading it. There are several ways
to do this. Today, bodies can be preserved through refrigeration.
It is hard for bacteria to thrive in a temperature near the
freezing point. Chemicals injected into the body can also prevent
bacteria. The Egyptians, though, preserved bodies by removing
the water from them.
Bacteria need water to survive. Water is abundant
in most living things (eighty-percent of mass of a body is water).
The Egyptian's mummification method dried out the body so that
bacteria could not easily live inside it.
The first Egyptian mummies were probably accidents.
Early in Egyptian history, people were buried in simple graves
dug out of the sand. Because of Egypts dry climate, the
sand had a natural drying effect. Sandstorms uncovered early
graves, showing the Egyptians how drying out the body preserved
it. This probably got the Egyptians thinking about how they
could preserve the body not just by luck or accident, but by
a set of preservation procedures. The earliest mummies made
by the Egyptians date back to around 3200 BC.
Mummy of Tuthmose III unwrapped by Emile Brugsch in
The earliest description of mummification procedures
were written by the historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus. Herodotus
visited Egypt around 450 BC and wrote down the mummification
process as was told to him by Egyptian priests:
As much of the brain as possible is extracted
through the nostrils with an iron hook, and what the hook cannot
reach is dissolved with drugs. Next, the flank is slit open
with sharp Ethiopian stone (probably a flake of obsidian)
and the entire contents of the abdomen are removed. The cavity
is then thoroughly cleansed and washed out, first with palm
wine and again with a solution of pounded spices. Then it is
filled with pure crushed myrrh, cassia, and all other aromatic
substances, except frankincense. The opening is sewn up, and
then the body is placed in natron, covered entirely for 70 days,
The lungs, liver, stomach and intestines of the
mummy were dried out and placed into separate "Canopic" jars
that would be placed in the tomb with the body The heart, considered
by the Egyptians to be the center of thought and soul, was left
in the mummy. The brain was considered of little value and discarded.
The natron Herodotus talks about is a substance
that draws water out of the body, drying it out. It occurs naturally
in parts of Egypt and is a mixture of sodium carbonate, sodium
bicarbonate, with small amounts of sodium chloride and sodium
sulphate. Once the body was dried out it would no longer be
subject to decay from the action of bacteria.
Though Herodotus did not record it, Richard
Evershed and Stephen Buckley of the University of
Bristol in England used two advanced techniques called gas chromatography
and mass spectrometry to test mummy remains and have discovered
the Egyptians also used other materials in their work besides
natron. These materials acted as antibacterial agents and a
watertight seals. The seals would prevent moisture from reentering
the body and creating further decay.
When this period, which may not be longer,
is ended, the body is washed and then wrapped from head to feet
in linen which has been cut into strips and smeared on the underside
with gum which is commonly used by the Egyptians in the place
of glue. In this condition the body is given back to the family,
who have a case of wood made, which is shaped like the human
figure, into which it is placed. The case is then sealed and
stored in a sepulchral chamber, upright, against the wall.
Not all bodies got the full treatment, Herodotus
records. The poor usually got only a shorter and less effective
preservation procedure. The technique also changed over time.
Early mummies did not have their internal organs removed. Later
mumifiers removed the internal organs, preserved them and returned
them to the body.
In 1994, Ronn Wade, Director of the Maryland State
Anatomy Board, and Bob Brier, a professor of philosophy and
Egyptology at Long Island University, decided to test Herodotuss
instructions. Taking a human body that had been willed to science,
they carefully followed the procedure outline in the account
of Herodotus and another historian, Diodorus Siculus who visited
Egypt around 60 BC. They were successful. They recorded that
the body, originally weighing 156 pounds after the organs were
removed, weighed only 79 pounds after treatment with the natron,
showing the mummy had lost 77 pounds of water.
The Wade-Brier mummy can now be used as a standard
to which scientists can compare the mummies they find at ancient
archaeological sites. Scientists have learned quite a bit about
the ancient Egyptians by examing mummies. Ancient Egyptians,
suffered with calcification of the arteries, as we do. Bilharziasis,
a disease caused by worms that plagues modern Egyptians was
also common in ancient times. The teeth of mummies, from the
poorest man to the king, had been worn by eating food with sand
in it. Sand was also in the air the ancient Egyptians breathed
and because of it they suffered from a lung condition called
Unfortunately Western archaeologists did not always
take as much interest in what they could learn from the mummies
as they might have. Some early researchers were only interested
in the jewelry found on themummy and discarded the body. Between
the 15th and 18th centuries, mummies were
ground into powder and sold as a cure-all drug that could be
put on injuries or taken internally. The trend died out when
the supply of mummies dried up and the public became aware that
suppliers had been using the bodies of recently-dead subjects
instead of ancient ones.
Scientists of earlier eras were forced to unwrap
the mummys bandages to examine the bodies. This was bad
for the mummies and potentially bad for the scientists. Researchers
have recently shown that mold spores found on some mummies are
still active and able to cause serious disease. Scientists now
unwrap mummies only while they are wearing protective gear.
In fact, they prefer not to unwrap the mummies at all, but to
examine them through the use of X-rays and CAT scans that do
no damage to the ancient figures.
mummies found in the tomb of Amenhotep II.
The Egyptians not only mummified people, but animals
as well. A favorite pet might be mummified to follow his master
into his tomb and accompany him into the afterlife. The Egyptians
usually stopped short of entombing a mans servants with
him, but they did create tiny model figures of servants that
were thought to be able to continue to serve the man after his
While it seems that all the tombs of the Egyptian
kings have been found and their mummies plundered or put in
museums, there may be thousands of mummies of lessor nobles
or common people still entombed in places in Egypt. Recently,
a cache of an estimated 10,000 mummies was found when a farmers
mule took a wrong step into a hole. The observant farmer noticed
that the hole led to a chamber full of mummies.
Even though the mummies may never rise and walk
like in the movies, they still tell stories. Stories about the
ancient, but advanced civilization of Egypt thousand of years
Make a fruit mummy.
Copyright Lee Krystek, 2000.
All Rights Reserved.