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Ancient Egypt: Mummification - the embalmers and their art
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Mummification

When I descended to give information ////// from the bend, behold, Iri [came (?)] from the court, [as I (?)] came, to embalm the count, wearer of the royal seal, sole companion, ritual priest, this Mekhu. He brought /// /// embalmers, the chief ritual priest, jmj-wab, /// sHD, the mourners and all offerings of the [White (?)] House. He brought festival oil from the double White House and secret things from the double wab.t-house (i.e. pure house), /// /// from the aHA-house, clothing of the double White House, and all burial equipment which is issued from the court, like the issuance for the hereditary prince, Meru.
Inscriptions of Sebni, 6th dynasty
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, §370
Mummy of Rai

The particularly well-preserved New Kingdom mummy of Rai
G. Elliot Smith, plate VI

The embalmers

The craftsmen

    Herodotus (5th century BCE) wrote in the declining days of classical Egypt, but this observation of his seems to have been correct for all trades and during the whole of Egypt's history:
In this occupation certain persons employ themselves regularly and inherit this as a craft.
Herodotus, Funerary usages
    Until the Late Period embalming was reserved for the rich and the number of embalmers was accordingly small. When mummification became a trade catering to the masses and offering treatments to fit any pocket, remuneration suffered and with it quite probably the social standing of the embalmers. Still, their upper class supervisors who, like the sixth dynasty Ikhekhi, wore titles like Inspector of the Prophets of the Pyramid, Hereditary Prince, Count, Sole companion, Lector Priest and embalmer-priest, did not get their hands dirty with gore and whose person was not impregnated by the smells of decaying corpses, saw no reason to hide their profession:
The prince, count, royal seal-bearer; true, beloved King's friend; keeper of the diadem of the God's Adoress; royal servant in the royal harem; embalmer-priest-of-Anubis of the God's Wife; prophet of the God's Adoress, Amenirdis. justified, in her ka-chapel; steward of the ka-priests; prophet of Osiris, Giver of Life; the Steward Harwa, son of the scribe Pedimut, justified.
Statue inscription of Harwa, Twenty-fifth Dynasty
M.Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.3 p.25
    The priest in charge o embalmment was an Overseer of the Secret, translit. Hr.j-sStA, who was assisted by a Sealbearer of the God, with a Lector Priest reciting the necessary magical spells.[13] In a Saqqara mastaba there is a depiction of the transportation to the place of embalmment
////// of Ankhemahor, whose pet name is Zezi.
(Caption by the first person:) A wailing woman (lit. a kite)
(Caption by the second person:) An Overseer of the Sealbearers of the God
(Caption by the third person:) An embalmer of Anubis
(Caption by the fourth person:) A lectorpriest
Mastaba of Ankhemahor, Saqqara, Old Kingdom [12]
    One might have expected that the evisceration of such huge numbers of human bodies by generations of people not bereft of scribal knowledge would have added to the understanding of the functioning of the human body and thus to medicine; but it does not seem to have had any such effect. The removal of organs through quite small incisions, often by cutting them up, did not further science, and their functions and relationships within the body remained a mystery.

Working conditions

    Contemporary sources rarely mention the hazards inherent in many professions; the Satire of the Trades describes some of them in order to caution wayward young scholars, but embalming is not among them. Reading the Satire one definitely gets the impression that these were considered to be in the nature of things and not problems one could or ought to solve.
    Just a few hours after death the entrails and other soft body parts begin to decay, and after two to three days - depending on the ambient temperature - putrefaction begins producing hydrogen sulphide, methane and other malodorous compounds. One could keep these odours to a minimum through speedy evisceration or mask them by burning incense, but even in the best of cases it would have been impossible to ignore the smell completely.
    Natron was used in large amounts during dehydration. Prolonged contact with this salt is not without risks, causing sensitization with chronic symptoms. The skin might become irritated with signs of redness and blistering. Contact with the eyes is even more harmful, causing conjunctival edema and even corneal destruction. If the dust is inhaled the respiratory tract might become irritated, causing coughing and difficulty in breathing. One may suppose that ancient embalmers would suffer from some of these complaints.
    When working with cadavers there is always a risk of infection. Cutting oneself with a tool used during embalming might cause blood-poisoning, which could well have been lethal.
    There may even have been the possibility of falling victim to a ritualistic stoning: Human bodies were thought to be inviolate (which did not deter the Egyptians from mutilating their dead enemies). Diodorus Siculus describes what happened to the embalmer who opened up the body to be mummified:
Then the inciser cuts the flesh with an Ethiopian stone as far as custom ordains; at that moment he flees hurriedly and those present chase after him, throwing stones and cursing him, as if they wanted to burden him with the guilt...

The Good House

An offering which the king gives and Anubis, who is upon his mountain and in the place of embalming, the lord of the necropolis.
Stela of Ni-Hebsed-Pepi from Naqada, Sixth Dynasty
M.Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.1 p.18
[Image: Anubis with mummy. Courtesy Jon Bodsworth]

Anubis
Tomb of Senedjem
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    This place of embalming was the Good House, the per-nefer (pr-nfr) [4]. The embalmer's workshop, referred to as the ibu (jbw), the Pure Place, was often a tent or a lean-to set up on a temporary basis. One may assume that it was at some distance from human habitation, as mummification was not without environmental impact, and even people used to strong odours may have objected to having such an establishment in their vicinity.
    Being far from prying eyes the behaviour of some embalmers seems to have been less than decorous, though we would probably be correct in supposing that necrophilia was as rare then as it is nowadays:
The wives of men of rank are not given to be embalmed immediately after death, nor indeed are any of the more beautiful and valued women. It is not till they have been dead three or four days that they are carried to the embalmers. This is done to prevent indignities from being offered them. It is said that once a case of this kind occurred: the man was detected by the information of his fellow-workman.
Herodotus Euterpe, 89.1

The embalmment

    Naturally, mummification techniques changed over time. In the fourth millennium there was just the occasional, not very successful attempt at preservation. During the Old Kingdom royalty seem to have undergone primitive embalming procedures, though the final, wrapped shape reminiscent of Osiris may have been more important than the preservation of the corpse. What had been a prerogative of kings during the third millennium became quite common among the well-to-do in the New Kingdom, while the embalmment of the pharaohs of this period produced mummies which endured. The first millennium witnessed the lower classes getting access to treatments hitherto applied to the elite only, though generally in a debased form, resulting in mummies the outward shape of which counted for more than the condition of the bodies inside the wrapping.
    These changes were the result of countless generations of embalmers improving their technique and passing on this knowledge to their successors.
Lo, those who were entombed are cast on high ground,
Embalmers' secrets are thrown away.
The admonitions of Ipuwer
M.Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.1 p.153
    With sons following in the footsteps of their fathers embalming was a family business and the accumulated knowledge was possibly guarded jealously. Moreover, during much of Egyptian history, the number of embalmers was small, so chances for exchange of know-how were limited. If ever there were secrets to embalming, they were no longer well guarded by the time of the Persian conquest.

Substances used during embalmment

Water

    Water was used in simple washing procedures. It played a crucial role in most purification rituals when natron was dissolved in it.
Pure, pure is the Osiris Great of the Five, master of seats, Sishou, /// (four) times. Your purification is the purification of Horus, and reciprocally; your purification is the purification of Thoth, and reciprocally; your purification is the purification of Geb, and reciprocally; your purification is the purification of Sepa, and reciprocally. Pure, pure is the Osiris Great of the Five, Sishou - [four] times.
The tomb of Petosiris
Lefebvre, Gustave Le Tombeau de Petosiris, 1924, vol.1, p.131
[Image: The mummy of Sishou standing before his tomb]

Natron

Purification of the mummy of Sishou, father of Petosiris, standing before his tomb
Source: Lefebvre, Gustave Le Tombeau de Petosiris, 1924

    The body was dehydrated with natron, i.e. sodium carbonate. Instead, salt, which would have been more readily available, could have been used, but natron was preferred being a purifying agent used in many religious contexts. It probably was associated with purification as it was often used for cleaning being capable of dissolving fats.
He [///] the holy of holies of the gods, offered to the community of the gods of Hatkeptah (Memphis), cleaned Memphis with natron and incense, installed the priests in their places.
The Piankhi Stela
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, §865

Alcohol

    Both Herodotus and Diodorus mention that palm wine was used for washing the body and removed organs. Its alcohol contents can be quite high and it has antibacterial qualities.

Bitumen

    It was mostly resins and oils hardening and turning black which made people think that the corpses had been covered in bitumen. This substance was seemingly used rarely [9], but some think that it may have given the mummies their modern English name via medieval Latin mumia, Arabic mumiya and French momie.

Resins, incense, fragrant woods

Thutmose Head of the mummy of Thutmose II.
According to G. Elliot Smith his ears have been stopped with plugs made of resin.
G. Elliot Smith, plate XXIV

    Fragrant wood and resins were generally imported from Punt.
The loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of God's Land, heaps of myrrh-resin, with fresh myrrh trees, ..... with ihmut incense, sonter incense ...
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, §265
    Cinnamon and cassia are dried bark from varieties of laurel trees grown in the Indian subcontinent and China. These may not be the kind of cinnamon written of by ancient sources, or rather what was called cinnamon by the translators
I gather together all the countries of Punt, all their tribute, of gum of myrrh, cinnamon and all the pleasant sweet woods of God's Land
Karnak reliefs, Seti I
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, §117
    The smell of incense was pleasing to the gods and masked bad odours. Moreover, its use during embalmment helped to purify the corpse, and, as the Egyptian word for incense (snTr) suggests, make it divine (snTrj).
Pure, pure is the Osiris, Great of the Five, master of seats, Sishou. The perfume, the perfume opens your mouth. It is the saliva of Horus, the perfume, it is the saliva of [///], the perfume. It is what makes firm the heart of the two lords, the perfume.
The tomb of Petosiris
Lefebvre, Gustave Le Tombeau de Petosiris, 1924, vol.1, p.131
    Since the times of Amenhotep III resins were at times inserted under the skin to replace the tissues which had shrunk during desiccation, giving a more natural form to the corpse.

Oils and ointments

    Dehydration caused great harm to the epidermis, making it brittle. Oils were applied to restore some elasticity. Due to the degradation which occurred over the millennia it is often impossible to ascertain what kinds of unguents were used.
None indeed sail north to Byblos today. What shall we do for pine trees for our mummies ? Free men are buried with their produce, nobles are embalmed with their oil as far as Crete.
The admonitions of Ipuwer
M.Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.1 p.152
    A. Lucas thought that the so-called cedar-oil used for anointing was in fact made from the juniper, while the oil which is got from cedar-wood mentioned by Herodotus as being injected into the anus was turpentine or the like. Koller et al. have found no evidence supporting Lucas' supposition.

Linen

Head of the mummy of Amenhotep III     Great quantities of linen strips were used to wrap the corpses. Woven linen being a gift of Neith, this goddess was one of the protective deities of mummified corpses. More specifically, the goddess of weaving Tait was considered to be the maker of all mummy wrappings (tAj.t).
    Urban myths talk of mummies being used as fuel in Egyptian steam engines [2] and linen mummy wrappings having been imported into the USA in order to make brown paper. They are just that: myths.

Head of the mummy of Amenhotep III.
The eye sockets have been stopped and the mouth cavity has been filled with resin.
The nostrils had been filled with cloth impregnated with resin. (These plugs were removed by archaeologists and cannot be seen in this picture)
G. Elliot Smith, plate XXXV

Wax

    Bees wax was used at times to plug orifices, the ears, eyes, nostrils, and the mouth. The incision made in the abdomen was also sometimes covered with a tablet made of wax.

The elite New Kingdom mummification

    No Egyptian texts describe mummification. The best accounts we have are by the Greek Herodotus (5th century BCE) and the Sicilian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE). The fact that they could learn about embalming in quite some detail leads to the conclusion that the general techniques were not, at least in the second half of the first millennium, secret. Their reports of the most expensive and elaborate mummification available in their time mostly tie in with the archaeological evidence gleaned from New Kingdom mummies.

Purification

    The body was purified by washing it with natron water. According to tomb depictions the deceased is shown standing as if alive on a pedestal or in a basin while a number of priests pour the liquid over him.

Evisceration

    By no means universal even among the rich, the inner organs apart from the heart and at times the kidneys were removed through an incision made on the left side of the abdomen, until the reign of Thutmose III from a little below the rib cage to the iliac crest of the pelvis, in later times diagonally in the groin–from the iliac crest almost to the pubis. [10] If the heart was removed during this operation, it was subsequently replaced.
    The brain was at times removed via a small hole punched into the brain casing through a nostril. This was done by scraping with a hooked implement or by flushing after dissolving it chemically [5]. It was disposed of as being of little consequence to a human being.

Dehydration

[Image: Canopic jars]     Liver, stomach, intestines, and lungs were cleaned with palm wine, desiccated by covering them with natron, wrapped in linen, and placed into four canopic jars, or returned to the body after it had been desiccated.

Canopic jars, 22nd dynasty
They were often given the shape of the four sons of Horus, each responsible for a certain organ. The human-headed Imsety was in charge of the liver, baboon-headed Hapy of the lungs, jackal-headed Duamutef of the stomach and falcon-headed Qebehsenuf of the intestines.
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    The body was laid out on its back. At times the empty thorax and abdomen were filled with little linen packages containing natron. The whole body was covered with finely ground natron for about forty days. After the desiccation period was over any natron packages were removed from the body and the natron which had absorbed bodily fluids and moisture was disposed of.

Packing the body

    According to Herodotus the filling of the belly with pure myrrh pounded up and with cassia and other spices except frankincense was done before dehydration, though it seems more likely that it took place afterwards.

Anointing

    The body was washed, in the opinion of A. Lucas, with water only, and oils and resins were applied to its skin. According to the Admonitions of Ipuwer pine oil was used. Diodorus, more than a millennium after the composition of the Admonitions spoke of cedar-oil. Myrrh and cinnamon mentioned by Diodorus and other spices and perfumes often have preserving qualities apart from bestowing pleasant smells on the body.

Wrapping

    Herodotus reports that the abdominal incision was sewn up, but there is little evidence of that having happened. More frequently the opening was covered up with a tablet of wax or, in the case of the pharaohs, of gold [6].

Notmit Queen Nodjmet, consort of Herihor
The eyes had been covered with wax plates which the researchers removed. The artificial eyeballs inserted underneath the eyelids are made of black and white stones.
G. Elliot Smith, plate LXX

    If the finger or toe nails had come loose they were tied back on with string. Royal mummies might have their fingers and toes protected with gold sheaths. The eyes were sometimes covered with vegetable matter like onions, since the late New Kingdom the eyeballs were at times replaced with pieces of cloth, stone or other materials.
    Fine linen was used for the wrapping. Head, neck, the individual fingers and toes were wrapped first. The digits were sometimes covered in gold leaf tubes. Then followed the swathing of arms and legs and the torso.

Heart scarab Heart Scarab of Hatnofer,
c.. 1466 B.C.E.; Dynasty 18, reign of Hatshepsut;
New Kingdom
Western Thebes
Rogers Fund, 1936 (36.3.2)
Source: Metmuseum website

    During wrapping amulets were inserted, the most important among which was a heart scarab placed over the heart. The amulet was there to protect it, but also to prevent it from betraying sins the deceased had committed to the gods sitting in judgement.
 
    With royal mummies the arms were often placed across the chest [8], with ordinary mortals they were tied together, the hands covering the genital area [7]. A copy of the Book of the Dead was sometimes placed between the hands. Finally the whole body was wrapped with linen strips soaked in resin, joining the arms to the body and tying the legs together.

[Image: Painted shroud. Source: Petrie Museum website]Painted shroud, c. 1000 BCE
Source: Petrie Museum website [3]

    The wrapping was at times shaped to recreate facial features. Sometimes it was also painted, or inscribed with magical formulae.
    The mummy may be wrapped with further shrouds, covered with a mask, which in the case of the pharaohs was made of gold with inlays of precious stones, while others had gilded or just painted cartonnage masks. The mummy may have been encased in more than one wooden anthropoid coffin and was finally lowered into a stone sarcophagus with a heavy stone lid.

Quality and price

    Native Egyptians were worried about the services provided to the deceased after burial, and some went to great lengths to ensure them through donations to the appropriate priesthoods, but no mention is made of the price of the embalmment. High quality mummification was the result of centuries of trial and error which culminated in the elite burials of the New Kingdom. Bodies were respectfully treated and the cases of royal mummies missing limbs seem to be the result of robbers unwrapping the mummies to get at the hidden jewellery.
    It fell to foreigners to provide us with information concerning the cost of mummification. Herodotus witnessed the beginning of mass embalmment and described the options. Diodorus Siculus made his report at a time when the quality of embalmment had become deplorable
The first is said to cost one silver talent, the second twenty mines, and the last an altogether insignificant amount.
    Just as happened with animal mummies bought by pilgrims as offerings to the gods, human mummies were at times treated in quite cavalier a fashion. Numbers of corpses were probably laid side by side on the ground and covered with natron and damaged by animals like jackals during and by embalmers after desiccation: some mummies had limbs replaced by sticks, others were buried with three arms and one leg etc. While the falsification of animal mummies led to a public outcry, we do not know if such practices with human corpses were ever discovered and punished in ancient times.

Length of the mummification process

    The evisceration would probably be done as fast as possible, as there was no means to stop the decay of the soft tissues with its accompanying stench, and desiccation of the muscles prevented bad odours at least partially. An New Kingdom inscription in the tomb of the treasurer Thoth at Thebes (TT 110) speaks of the beautiful burial following the deceased's seventy days in the place of embalmment. Herodotus, who visited Egypt in the fifth century BCE, reported that the process of embalming took seventy days. He did not say how long it took to wrap the corpse, but that probably was included in this time period. Other sources also suggest that seventy days were about the time needed for complete embalmment [1]:
And the king had him laid in his Good House to the sixteenth day, and then had him wrapped to the thirty-fifth day, and laid him out to the seventieth day, and then had him put in his grave in his resting-place.
    The length of the process depended on a number of factors, heat being a primary one, quality of workmanship another. Psamtik, a priest who lived under Ahmose II was buried in somewhat of a hurry–if his inscription has been interpreted correctly:
He was introduced into the Good House, and he spent 42 days under the hand of Anubis, lord of Tazoser
    Although seventy days was the rule, there was seemingly no fixed time period between death and burial. It depended on environmental factors and techniques used, Old Kingdom defleshing must have taken a good deal less time than a full-blown New Kingdom royal embalmment. At times the burial was put off for months, for political, logistical or other reasons, e.g. Meresankh, granddaughter of Khufu, was brought to the place of embalming on the twenty-first day of the second month of the shemu-season and was buried on the eighteenth day of the second month of peret of the following year, after 272 days, [11] possibly the time needed to get her tomb ready.

 


[1] The Bible should generally not be regarded as an historical reference for the second and early first millennium BCE, being written centuries after the putative events. But Hebrews had probably been staying in Egypt on a number of occasions. So, for what it's worth, according to the Hebrew tradition the period of mourning in Egypt was seventy days, while embalming took about forty:
2 And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father: and the physicians embalmed Israel.
3 And forty days were fulfilled for him; for so are fulfilled the days of those which are embalmed: and the Egyptians mourned for him three score and ten days.
Genesis 50
A tale from the Greek Period also speaks of 70 days:
I spent the 70 days (of embalmment) being by the doors of the place of embalmment (and) copying a papyrus roll, a written roll, a hymn to breathing (i.e. a "Book of Breathing") for the divine wrapping (?) of the Osiris-king Pharaoh Psamtik.
The King's Tale, pBerlin 13588
after a translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
[2] Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad, chapter LVIII
I shall only say that the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, "D--n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent--pass out a King;"--[Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe any thing.]
And so can many of us.
[4] On Transliteration and pronunciation of ancient Egyptian
[5] Herodotus described the procedure as follows:
They take first a crooked piece of iron, and with it draw out the brain through the nostrils, thus getting rid of a portion, while the skull is cleared of the rest by rinsing with drugs
Herodotus: Euterpe, 2.86.1
Based on their examination of skulls of mummies Pirsig et al. have suggested that sticks, the tips of which were wrapped with linen, may also have been used.
[9] Mark L. Proefke, Kenneth L. Rinehart, "Analysis of an Egyptian Mummy Resin by Mass Spectrometry," in Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, Volume 3, Issue 5 (July 1992), pp. 479-597
[10] Kamal Sabri Kolta, Doris Schwarzmann-Schafhauser, Die Heilkunde im alten Ägypten: Magie und Ratio in der Krankheitsvorstellung und therapeutischen Praxis, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000, p.82
[11] Anne K. Capel, Glenn Markoe, Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt, Hudson Hills, 1996, p.104
[12] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Sakkara => Teti-Friedhof => Mastaba des Ankhmahor => Raum 6 => Südwand => Transport-Szene => Überführung
[13] Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The British Museum Press 1995, pp.190f.

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Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
 
Petrie Museum collection[3] Petrie Museum collection
Gold plate covering the embalmer's incision[6] Gold plate covering the embalmer's incision
 The mummy of Zadptahefonkhu[7] The mummy of Zadptahefonkhu
 The mummy of Ramses V[8] The mummy of Ramses V
Burial customsBurial customs
MummificationMummification
Kunst der MumifizierungDie Kunst der Mumifizierung im alten Ägypten
Mumien und TotenkultÄgyptologie Links: Mumien und Totenkult

 

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