Ancient Egypt and its civilisation have always possessed an uncanny ability to captivate and fascinate. Among the various aspects of this civilisation, perhaps nothing has been more intriguing than mummification which was the topic of a recent seminar held in Cairo by the Egyptian Heritage Lovers Society. Zainab al-Sawan, Professor of Egyptology and tour guide, was the guest speaker.
Most famous of all
Dr Sawan explained that mummification as a science originated in Egypt and later spread to other parts of the world. Archaeologists can now learn how it was done in many universities, including Oxford in the UK.
In ancient times, Dr Sawan said, embalmers belonged to a special social class. Since they handled the dead, they were often disliked and rejected by the rest of the community and thus tended to intermarry within their group.
Mummification, she explained, is the process of drying out a body in order to preserve it so that it remains as intact and lifelike as possible. The most famous of all mummies is that of Pharaoh Ramses II, on which extensive studies have been made. Some other mummies appear to us as curiosities, such as a mummy discovered in the Pyramids area of a strange looking man who was the king’s counselor. The body measures a mere one metre in height, and has unusually wide eyes. Some have claimed that it is the mummy of an alien, but the scholars believe that the man either suffered from a rare disease or had a congenital malformation.
The heart, core of the soul
“Mummification is the process of embalming and drying,” Dr Sawan told the assembly. “Embalming means using balms, which are fragrant oils and resins such as myrrh and cassia, to cover the corpse of the deceased. The origin of the word mummy comes from the Persian ‘mumia’ or bitumen, a black hydrocarbon.”
The first step in mummification involved removing most of the internal organs to prevent rapid decay. The brain was extracted through the nostrils or through a hole made in the lower back part of the skull. The only internal organ left inside the body was the heart, which was believed to be the core of the soul and would testify on behalf of the deceased in the last judgment that would determine his or her afterlife.
After removal of the internal organs, the body was dried. It was injected through the anus with pine nut oil, often referred to as cedar oil, then covered with natron, a mineral salt of hydrated sodium carbonate found in dried lake beds. The chest and abdomen cavity was also stuffed with natron to hasten drying.
Cosmetics were applied to beautify the face and nails, and the body was then wrapped with hundreds of metres of resin-coated linen cloth, often coloured red with copper oxide. Beeswax was used as an adhesive substance between the linen strips to make a complete seal. Amulets would be placed in the wrappings to aid the deceased in the afterlife; the wealthier the individual the more precious the amulet, which would be fashioned in gold or precious stones.
Dr Sawan explained that Egyptian burial methods evolved from predynastic times, when the dead were interred in the desert, away from fertile land and habitation, in a crouched or foetal position—at a later period the deceased was placed in a basket before being buried in the ground. Bodies thus buried were found to have been dried and preserved naturally in the silicone of the sand, but when the custom of burial in stone vaults was adopted the corpses quickly decayed. The process of mummification was developed in order to preserve the body, which by then was considered essential for continued afterlife. It took some time and experimentation before the process became completely successful.
Dr Sawan compared the different levels of quality of burial and mummification as ancient Egyptian funerary practices developed in dynastic times, from the most intricate and expensive royal mummification to that given to lesser subjects which was inferior in quality.
“Royal mummies were, as one would expect, given royal treatment. The internal organs were washed, dried out in natron, and preserved separately in a set of four special containers called canopic jars, which were buried alongside the mummy. Each canopic jar had a lid shaped after the head of one of the minor funerary deities. The liver was preserved in a jar shaped after Imsety, the human-headed god; the lungs in a jar shaped after Hapy, the baboon-headed god; the stomach in a jar shaped after Duamutef, the jackal-headed god; and the intestines in a jar shaped after Qebehsenuef, the falcon-headed god. The head of a royal mummy was covered with a funerary mask made of gold or silver.”
Mummification was less elaborate if the deceased was of lower status or wealth. The mummification process for the poor simply consisted of washing the corpse, removing the internal organs and finally drying it out with natron. If the family could not afford the hundreds of metres of linen strips, the deceased would be buried in his or her old clothes or other draperies.
During the New Kingdom, the corpse was covered with resins and fragrant oils to block the pores, and more natron or sawdust was inserted between the skin and the muscles to fill them out and make the body look more lifelike.
Dr Sawan also explained the difference between the funerary masks of ancient Egypt and the famous Fayoum portraits of the Roman period. The latter hung in the house of the persons during their lifetime and were placed on their cartonnage coffins when they died. By contrast, the funerary masks of ancient Egypt were especially made after death.
Pyramid builders no slaves
Dr Sawan spoke of her experience in archaeological excavations of ancient Egyptian tombs. “I worked on excavating the tombs of the pyramid builders in Tura for five years,” she said. “The workers were buried in mass graves along with their drinking jugs, eating plates and the tools they might use in the afterlife. No valuables were buried with the workmen except for the single case of a gold ring buried alongside a mummy which I believe may have been a gift from an overseer or site engineer.”
Dr Sawan stressed that, contrary to a commonly-held view, the people who built the pyramids were not slaves but peasant farmers who came from Upper Egypt during the annual Nile flood season when agricultural activity came to a halt. Men considered it an honour to work in the surroundings of the king as they believed they would be brought back in the afterlife in the surroundings of that king.
As for other peoples’ mummification practices, Sawan said some mummies had also been found in Yemen and were on display in the Sana’a Museum. Mass graves for the wealthy were discovered where mummies wrapped in goatskins were buried in mountainous caves. The corpses were dried out using gum Arabic and covered with spices and ben oil.
Dr Sawan concluded the seminar by saying that mummification was essentially a local science in which each people used elements from the local environment, except in Yemen where the ben oil was brought from India.
15 June 2016