By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University
Ancient Egyptian civilization has always attracted a lot of interest, especially the mummies found in the secret tombs. If one looks at a mummy carefully, it tells a lot about the ancient Egyptians. What was the process of mummification, and were all mummies the same?
The Practice of Mummification in Ancient Egypt
Mummification was practiced in Egypt for 3,000 years. But not all mummies were the same. Each mummy was different. What was the reason for this difference?
Partially, it was due to trial and error. It was a process and over time the quality of mummification improved. It was similar to automobiles. Just compare the cars of today to those from a century or half century ago. In fact, there is no comparison.
Over a long period, the mummification techniques changed and evolved and the end product became far superior to previous eras. Simply stated, ancient Egyptians got better at the craft of mummifying.
However, it was more complicated than that. It was by no means straight forward. Indeed, the progress was quite uneven. Sometimes they got better at it, and a few years later, the quality of the mummies deteriorated and got noticeably worse.
This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Old Kingdom Mummies
It is important to point out that the Old Kingdom is one of the most glorious eras in ancient Egyptian civilization. It is in fact the era of pyramid building. It is the era of some of the most famous kings, Sneferu and Khufu, in ancient Egypt.
A detailed assessment of Old Kingdom mummies reveals that the mummification process wasn’t really intended to preserve the body. It seems they were almost attempting to make a statue.
If one inspects the Old Kingdom mummies of fairly wealthy people, very often, one will see a layer of bandages that have been coated with plaster. And the features of the deceased are painted on the plaster, or sometimes carved into it. Why did they paint or carve the features of the deceased on the plaster?
Learn more about ancient Egyptian thought.
The Preservation of the Corpse
Perhaps the people of the Old Kingdom were attempting to preserve the corpse. In case the body decays or is destroyed, at least, there is a plaster coating that provides a hint of how a famous or wealthy person looked like when they were alive.
So to summarize, Old Kingdom mummies were not works of master craft, to say the least. The mummification process was sloppy, superficial, and anything but thorough. They weren’t really dehydrating the bodies, removing the brain and vital organs, etc. The idea was just to have an outer shell that looked pretty good.
Learn more about the end of the Old Kingdom.
The Immaculate Mummification of Queen Hetepheres
In another era during the Old Kingdom when Sneferu was the pharaoh, exceptionally high-quality mummies were made. The earliest one unearthed belongs to Queen Hetepheres, the wife of King Sneferu. She was indeed a very important woman in the Old Kingdom, not just because she was married to a king.
Queen Hetepheres’s mummified body had a “canopic chest”, meaning her internal organs were removed and placed in four containers made of alabaster that had liquid solutions of natron in them. Natron is comprised of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chloride. In layman’s terms, it was basically baking powder and table salt.
To conclude, there were all kinds of mummies in ancient Egypt. They had different shapes and sizes. The calculated guess is that the quality of the mummy depended on what the person could afford.
As a consequence, especially when it came to commoners and those not belonging to the royal family and the aristocracy, the quality of the mummification varied considerably. But there were several certain constants. For example, the internal organs were taken out through a slit in the abdomen.
By just looking at a mummy, we get to know so much about life in ancient Egypt.
Common Questions about Mummification in Ancient Egypt
The mummies of fairly wealthy people in the Old Kingdom had a layer of bandages that were coated with plaster. The features of the deceased were painted on the plaster, or sometimes carved into it. The plaster coating provided a hint of how a famous or wealthy person looked like when they were alive.
Each era in ancient Egypt followed a different technique of mummification. There were times when the mummies were of high quality and then there were other times when the mummies were nothing more than a layer of bandages that were coated with plaster. Also, it depended on class and wealth. The richer or more powerful you were, the better the mummification process.
In another era during the Old Kingdom when Sneferu was the pharaoh, exceptionally high-quality mummies were made.
Apparently, the quality of the mummy depended on what the person could afford. Therefore, when it came to commoners and those not belonging to the royal family and the aristocracy, the quality of the mummification varied considerably.