5 discoveries about how the ancient Egyptians created mummies

In ancient Egypt, wood for coffins was scarce and expensive (Grosbygroup)

Centuries after the first golden coffins come to Europe, ancient egyptian mummies They continue to capture people’s imaginations. Perhaps we are overwhelmed by the greatness of its rituals and traditions. But new discoveries continue to challenge scientists’ perception of these ancient rites.

As a biomedical Egyptologist, I study mummies to learn about life in ancient populations. In the last 10 years I have witnessed a great change in our understanding of how, why and when mummies were created. This has been mainly due to new scientific discoveries. Here are five of the most important ones that have changed what we know about this ancient process.

1. Mummification is older than archaeologists imagined

For decades, the oldest known mummies came from the time of the Old Kingdom (2500-2100 BC), around the time when coffins became more widely used by the Egyptians. These mummies are rare, but show signs of having been specially prepared by embalmers. Pre-Old Kingdom mummies were believed to be created naturally by burying the bodies in tombs dug out of the hot, dry sand. Scientists thought that embalming was developed to keep bodies preserved inside coffins.

But chemical tests published in 2014 and 2018 showed that resins and perfumes were already used to help preserve the skin of the dead more than 6,000 years agobefore coffins were common and long before the Old Kingdom era.

2. The “recipe” varied throughout Egypt

Recent scientific studies on mummies and the vessels used in mummification revealed how methods differed from place to place and were not standardizedas thought.

Each region had its own embalming workshops, where mummies were made following a complicated and closely guarded ritual. This secrecy meant that very few records survived.

Egyptian mummies
Household clothing was also often used to wrap mummies after they were no longer useful (Grosbygroup)

Embalmers living in politically important areas, such as Thebes (present-day Luxor), had access to the latest mummification materials, as part of an extensive trading network. In more remote areas, such as oases, embalmers had to make do. Natron salt, used to dry the body, was heavy and difficult to transport. Resins and perfumes could be expensive, being traded over long distances for other luxury items.

Instead, embalmers in these remote areas developed creative techniques. For example, they used sticks to stiffen bundles of mummies or to fix body parts that fell off during mummification. They also created composite mummies, made up of the parts of various people.

We do not know very well how experimentation with mummification arose in different areas or times. Although there was probably an element of trial and error.

3. Ancient accounts were not always reliable

The information we have about mummification comes mainly from two ancient Greek writers, Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus. They describe the steps of mummification, such as using a hook to extract the brain through the nose. They also tell us that the heart was left in the body because it was believed to be important to life after death.

Scientific studies carried out with computed tomography have shown that the rules of mummification were less rigid than what Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus believed. Only a quarter of known mummies have their hearts. And many mummies still have their brains. If the embalmers removed the brain, they sometimes used different methods so as not to damage the face. Holes have been found in the lower part of the skull and by different routes in the nose.

4. The Egyptians recycled coffins

In ancient Egypt, wood for coffins was scarce and expensive. Not everyone could afford a new coffin or linen wrappings. In the New Kingdom, a good coffin – although not luxurious – cost about five goats or 250 loaves of bread.

Recycling and reuse are not modern concepts. To save money, embalmers used to take coffins from graves already in use. They would repaint them to include the new owner’s name or use the pieces to make a new coffin. The tombs used to be raided by thieves looking for valuables. This made it easy for others to search the grave for coffins and wrappings to reuse.

Household clothing was also often used to wrap mummies after it was no longer useful. Modern investigative techniques, such as radiocarbon dating, show that this practice was widespread. Coffin materials, linen wrappings, and other materials are sometimes dated to several hundred years before the person they were buried with.

Treasury of coffins and statues from ancient Egypt were found in a cemetery near Cairo
In May 2022, the discovery of intact painted wooden coffins in burial pits containing mummies, amulets and wooden boxes was announced in Egypt (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

5. Tourism messed up history

Now we know that mummies found in museums outside of Egypt are not always in the coffins in which they were discovered. Many mummies are given a historical date based on the style and decoration of their coffin. The shape, decoration, and religious texts they carried changed over time.

But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, mummies were sold to tourists, scientists, or collectors. Vendors would place well-wrapped mummies in coffins from different tombs to encourage people to buy them. The mismatch only comes to light when a mummy is scientifically studied.

It is now illegal to take mummies or any other ancient artifact out of Egypt. However, there are still many mummies in private homes, bought over a century ago and sometimes forgotten.

Rather than an unbreakable tradition, Egyptian mummification was variable. The funeral rituals available to a person showed how important she and her family were. Being mummified using the most modern techniques and materials not only helped to secure a person’s position in the afterlife, but was an important sign of status.

It is impossible to know what the next archaeological or scientific discovery will bring us. But one thing is clear: even ancient embalmers had to improvise sometimes.

*This article was originally published on The Conversation. The author is Professor of Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester.

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