Home General The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
General By Monica Gray -

Ancient Egypt preserved dead bodies through a process called mummification. The process baffled scientists for years, and it’s more complex than it looks. Simply put, mummification was not only a preservation technique but also a sacred ritual backed by tremendous religious beliefs regarding the afterlife. In the Egyptian afterlife, they believed a soul would be reunited with the body. For this to happen properly, preservation of the physical form, the body, was critical. Their complex process aimed to prevent the decay of the body and ensure it would last for eternity. Ancient texts showed it took 70 days and included careful rituals, ingredients, and skills to preserve the mummies.

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
A partially unwrapped mummy. Photo Credit: wscullin/Flickr

Residue Reveals the Hidden Art of Egyptian Mummification

For a while, it was guesswork, and according to archeologist Philipp Stockhammer, “There’s almost no textual evidence. How this worked, how the substances were mixed, how they were named—this wasn’t known. They… knew what substances they needed to put on the skin—antibacterial, antifungal substances—to keep the skin best possibly preserved without having any microbiological background, without even knowing about bacteria. This enormous knowledge was accumulated over centuries.”

That was until they discovered residue left behind in ancient jars. Furthermore, Egyptologist Rita Lucarelli said, “The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with the afterlife. They believed that there was another life after the life here on Earth. In order for the spiritual part of the deceased to make this journey, the body needed to stay intact.” To prepare for that life, the Ancient Egyptians conducted an in-depth ceremony and mummification process.

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies

Discoveries Began In The 13th Century

Scientist’s interest in mummies is nothing new. For centuries, scientists have found the Ancient Egyptian’s mummification process fascinating. The 1586 English merchant John Sanderson smuggled roughly 600 pounds of mummy parts. he commented on his adventure, saying, “We were let down by ropes, as into a well, with wax candles burning in our hands, and so walked upon the bodies of all sorts and sizes, some great and small. They have no noisome smell at all but are like pitch, being broken. For I broke off all the parts of the bodies to see how the flesh was turned to the drug and brought home divers’ heads, hands, arms, and feet for a show.

“We brought also six hundred pounds . . . together with a whole body. They are lapped in above a hundred double of cloth, which rotting and peeling off, you may see the skin, flesh, fingers, and nails firm, only altered black.” Slowly, over time, scientists interested in expanded, and they started making more discoveries. But questions remained, and for hundreds of years, they couldn’t exactly figure out how the Ancient Egyptians properly mummified the bodies until only recently (Science History).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Science

New Evidence Arises

Only recently have scientists learned how Ancient Egypt made mummies. This new evidence came from a place located just south of Cairo, from a 2700-year-old (664 B.C.E.-525 B.C.E.) burial complex. It was called Saqqara. It’s all thanks to archeologist Ramadan Hussein, who, in 2016, discovered shallow aboveground pits. This led to the discovery of a chamber, which they realized was used as a mummy workshop to mummify the corpses.

Philipp Stockhammer continues, “It was a protoindustrial mummification workshop for the upper class,” Stockhammer says. The Ancient Egyptians filled the shaft with rocks, sand, and embalming vessels, in addition to bowls, cups, and plates inscribed with the names of oils and substances (Science).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Science

Sourcing Ingredients From Far-Flung Lands

Further research regarding the mummies led scientists to discover that the “embalmers sourced ingredients from surprisingly far-flung lands for their specific biomolecular properties,” and the Ancient Egyptians enhanced their mummification process over thousands of years. It eventually became a sophisticated ritual, taking up to two months.

They treated the body with spells and prayers, including other substances like bacteria and fungi to mitigate the moisture and keep the body as preserved as possible (Discover Magazine).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
CNET

Before They Mummified, They Purified

The mummification process was a long and intensive practice. The Egyptians put a lot of care and effort into the bodies before wrapping them. However, according to Science, this process began long before the embalming process, where the “Egyptians took the body to the Ibu, the “Place of Purification.” In this house, they washed the body in water gathered from the Nile.

This represented a sort of rebirth, as the person passed from one world into the next. Once the body was cleaned, the embalmers carried it to the Per-Nefer, the “House of Mummification,” where they began the embalming process.” It was then that the body began its journey to the afterlife, and the embalmers began preparing the body for dehydration, wrapping, and burial (Science).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Business Insider

Body Preparation

To make their mummies, the Ancient Egyptians had to first extract the internal organs of the body, except for the heart. They considered the heart the seat of the soul. They often removed the brain through the nostrils using special tools, where it was then cleaned and dehydrated using natron, though it’s more likely it was first liquified and then taken out.

According to British Egyptologist Filce Leek, “Hooking it out in pieces is not particularly efficient/successful,” but it could be “slowly removed as small parts of the brain adhered to the metal hook through repeated insertions and removals, liquifying the brain makes the removal of it fairly straightforward. If you whisk the brain with a hook for about 20 minutes, the brain liquidizes and you can just pour it out.” Either way, the mummies did not have brains (Business Insider).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Met Museum

It Started Before Coffins

As researchers delved deeper into the mysteries of ancient mummification, they uncovered evidence challenging the prevailing belief that the oldest mummies were naturally formed during the Old Kingdom era. Contrary to the notion of spontaneous preservation, chemical tests revealed an intentional use of perfumes and resins in the mummification process, dating back over 6,000 years.

This paradigm-shifting discovery not only redefines our understanding of ancient burial practices but also underscores the remarkable sophistication of Ancient Egyptian embalming techniques well before the formal establishment of the Old Kingdom era.(Manchester).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies

They Used Canopic Jars For The Organs

To properly prepare the body for the afterlife, the embalmers had to carefully remove the body’s organs. As we’ve mentioned, there’s some speculation as to how they removed the brain, but regardless, all major organs were removed. They needed to preserve the organs for all of eternity. The jars had carved lids in the form of gods, that were “meant to be stored together with the body of the deceased in their tombs. Each of these jars held a particular organ that had been carefully extracted from the dead by the priests that performed the mummification rites.”

They also placed food with the body, so it could be properly fed in the afterlife. If they failed to do this properly, it was believed that the body would not reach the underworld or achieve eternal life. Every dead person also had to go to the “Hall of Maat, where a trial took place. There, Anubis weighed the heart of the deceased on a scale, against a feather. If the heart was lighter than the feather, the dead person could go forward into the underworld. But even then, it was a tricky voyage, so Egyptians wrote all kinds of books and manuals with precise directions and even maps on how to reach the place of eternal life.” (The Collector).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Historical Lev

Wrapping

After the Ancient Egyptians dehydrated their bodies and removed all of their internal organs, they wrapped them in layers of linen bandages. In between the layers, priests placed charms and amulets which protected the afterlife. They usually used religious texts and passages from the Book of the Dead.

According to the University of South Florida, “Great care would be taken to wrap the individual fingers and toes separately, as to try and keep the integrity of the human form. In some cases, mummies have been found with a prosthesis for legs or arms under the linen wrappings to help maintain the shape of the human likeness. After the wrapping was completed, a plaster or gesso would be carefully smoothed over the body over the linen to further smooth and complete the human shape.” It was part of a long process that took many months (USF).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Discover Magazine

They Blended Essential Oils

The Ancient Egyptians used many special blends in their ceremonies with the mummies. Around 2,600 years ago, some of these blends included essential oils and beeswax to help transform the corpses into mummies. They not only wanted to dehydrate the bodies but wanted to make them dry and fragrant.

Archeologist Maxime Rageot said, “They knew the ritual practices, but also [a] kind of chemistry.” They did many of their experiments and chemical mixes in their mummy workshop (Discover Magazine).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
British Museum

There Weren’t Standard Procedures for Mummification

Previously, researchers thought methods were the same everywhere across Ancient Egypt regarding mummification. But it differed. Each region had its embalming workshops, where mummies were produced in guarded, specialized rituals. Only a few records survived, which is why it’s been so difficult to truly figure out the science behind the mummies.

Areas near modern-day Luxor had access to numerous mummification materials because of its location. Other areas, such as oases, had to use other materials like sticks to make mummy bundles more rigid since Natron salt was difficult to transport. Other mummies used the parts of several people, called composite mummies. There were also discrepancies within the same region and the mummification process due to income disparities. (Manchester).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Egyptian Streets

They Used A Variety of Substances To Mummify

To preserve the mummies, the Ancient Egyptians had to use a variety of substances, none of which were known until 2018. To find out what kind of chemicals they used, they analyzed more than 100 pottery vessels found more than 40 feet underground. These vessels had instructions like “to make the odor pleasant,” “for making beautiful the skin,” and “head, boil.”

The scientists selected around 31 pots to analyze. To do this, they brought the pots to a local food chemistry lab to analyze the biomolecules by analyzing the clay powder that was seeped into the pottery’s pores (Discover Magazine).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Eurek Alert

They Also Used Exotic Materials To Mummify

Besides the typical Natron salt, the Ancient Egyptians used more exotic materials to curb moisture and other organisms that would decay the body. They likely used Bitumen tar from the Dead Sea, olive oil and juniper from the Mediterranean, and tree resin from Asia.

Philipp Stockhammer said, “This points to the fact that these resins were traded over very large distances and that Egyptian mummification was somehow a driver towards early globalization and global trade. They knew how to select and mix antimicrobial substances which enabled perfect skin preservation.” Using a conglomeration of different substances, the Ancient Egyptians mastered mummification (Reuters).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Quora

They Mostly Used Natron To Mummify

To successfully mummify the bodies, the Ancient Egyptians mainly used natron. It played a pivotal role in the mummification process. Not only did it dehydrate the body, but it prevented the growth of microorganisms that would decay the body. Scientists analyzed to find out exactly what they used, and they found traces of beeswax, animal fats, vegetable oils, and bitumen, in addition to plant resins. They were able to get these results thanks to the fatty and sticky residue, which led to good organic preservation.

First, the Egyptians immersed them in natron, and then they treated them with sticky mixtures to seal the skin and preserve the body. This would prevent decay and decomposition, thanks to its antibacterial function (Science).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Nature

Some Mummies Were Treated With Resins

Other mummies were treated with resins, for example, frankincense and myrrh. These acted as preservatives and provided a pleasant scent to the mummy. Others also used elmi and dammar resins, which were extracted from hardwood native to Southeast Asian rainforests. Interestingly enough, these materials were thousands of kilometers from Egypt. Others used pistachio and cedar, sourced from the Mediterranean.

Researchers found that most of the embalmers came from outside of Egypt. They needed a lot of material to properly mummify the body. At the time, it was a huge part of the trading system and drove globalization (Science).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
The Not-So-Innocent Sabora

Royal Mummies

Those mummies of royalty and elites received more elaborate mummification processes than other mummies. This includes additional rituals and higher-quality materials for preservation. With poorer mummies, they oftentimes filled the corpses with juniper oil to dissolve the organs before burial. But with royalty, they washed the body, removed the organs except the heart, packed the body in salt embalmed the body with resin, and wrapped the corpse in linen.

Then, these royal mummies were placed in ornate stone coffins called sarcophaguses, and then buried in even more elaborate tombs. Some were even buried with pets and servants (History).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Australian Museum

Animal Mummies

Egyptians didn’t limit their mummification to only people. They also mummified animals! Mostly, this was as an offering to the gods. Cats, dogs, and even crocodiles were mummified and placed in dedicated tombs. Researchers have found nearly every type of animal as a mummy in Egypt, including birds, snakes, and crocodiles.

According to the Australian Museum, “Many of these were not well mummified, some contained only rubble or only parts of an animal. X-rays show that numerous animals had broken necks or battered skulls, indicating they were deliberately killed for this purpose. This could mean that some buyers were being deliberately deceived or that only the external appearance of the mummies was required to fulfill the religious function of these offerings.” Some animals were even specifically bred to be used as offerings (Australian Museum).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
East Mojo

Egyptians Upcycled Coffins

Because coffins were expensive and wood was scarce for coffins in ancient Egypt, many Egyptians upcycled coffins. It was unlikely one could afford a new coffin or linen. One new coffin typically costs around 250 loaves of bread. Many embalmers would take coffins from tombs already in use, to save money. All they had to do was repaint the coffin and add the name of the new owner.

Robbers also raided tombs, leaving them open and making it easy for embalmers to reuse the wrappings. Sometimes, household linens were used as mummy wrappings when they outlived their use. Researchers figured the Egyptians repurposed coffins for mummies because they’d find coffins several hundred years older than the person buried inside (Science Direct).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Australian Museum

They Performed Special Rituals

We know the Ancient Egyptians performed special rituals, but what exactly did this entail? They used certain spells so the mummies could use all of their senses in the afterlife. They raised the mummy upright for the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony. Some of the practices involved included purification, reciting prayers and spells, and touching the mummy with certain objects to restore the senses. They offered food and clothing to the mummy and mourners.

Once the mummy was fully prepared, they placed it in its special tomb. All of these practices took place directly in front of the tomb (Australian Museum).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies

The Amulet Of The Heart

Egyptians viewed the heart much like modern-day humans view the brain. According to Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budget, the Egyptians saw it as the “seat of power and life.” If someone possessed a mastery of the heart, they would have certain strength and powers in the afterworld. Numerous times, they turned the organ itself into a magic amulet, with an associated jaw where embalmers would remove the heart and secure it into a jar. The jar had to specifically be lapis-lazuli, which was a stone that came from Afghanistan across trading routes.

Egyptologist Rita Lucarelli said, “The heart was always left inside because the Egyptians believed it was the most important aspect of the person in that it contained the intellect.” It protected the organ not only in life but in the underworld as well. It was a highly noble stone with supernatural powers that the Egyptians highly regarded (The Collector).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Smithsonian Magazine

Their Coffins Changed Over Time

Throughout the years, the Egyptian coffins became more and more intricate and detailed. According to Spurlock, “By the Middle Kingdom, the coffin was considered a miniature tomb, and it was decorated with many of the items that had formerly adorned the walls of the tomb. The goddesses Isis and Nephthys were painted as guards at the head and foot of the coffin. The inside floor of the coffin was painted with Nut, Isis, Osiris, or the Djed pillar (Osiris’s backbone). The sides bore the four sons of Horus and other deities. Horizontal inscriptions gave not only the owner’s name and titles but also a prayer for offerings. Vertical inscriptions were prayers to the divinities on behalf of the deceased.”

After this, anthropoid coffins appeared, where they were carved to represent an outline of the deceased person’s body with their face and wig. As time progressed, they were decorated with scenes and inscriptions. Rishi coffins were then popularized, and eventually in the New Kingdom, ready-made coffins were available (Spurlock).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
CNN

Being An Embalmer Was A Family Business

Historian Diodorus Siculus (lived 30 – 90 B.C.) traveled to Egypt and studied and wrote about the process of mummification. He published a book called The Library of History, where he explained the process and the art of mummification. In his book, he noted that embalmers were “considered worthy of every honor and consideration, associating with the priests and even coming and going in the temples without hindrance.”

They had to be incredibly skilled and meticulous in their work, that “even the hair on the eyelids and brows remains, the entire appearance of the body is unchanged, and the cast of its shape is recognizable.” To be an embalmer was to be an artist (Live Science).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
World History Encyclopedia

Unreliable Ancient Accounts

As researchers sought to unravel the scientific intricacies of Ancient Egypt’s mummification practices, they encountered challenges arising from the reliance on the accounts of two Greek writers, Diodorus Siculus and Herodotus, for much of the information. Upon a meticulous examination of mummies, scientists discovered a surprising flexibility in the prescribed rules of mummification.

Contrary to conventional beliefs, some mummies retained their brains, while others still harbored their hearts. Intriguingly, when brain removal occurred, it deviated from the commonly depicted method through the nose, as some scientists identified perforations at the base of the skull and alternative routes leading into the nasal cavities. (Manchester).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Reddit

We Know The Ancient Egyptians Were Intelligent

Even though much of the resin and other compounds have likely deteriorated, the chemical artistry behind the pot residue and knowledge of the temperatures, ingredients, and times have been passed down over thousands of years.

According to Philipp Stockhammer, the Egyptians “spent more than 2000 years trying to perfect the preservation of the human body—that’s 2000 years trying to perfect their workflow. The chemical knowledge they must have had in this workshop was amazing.” Unfortunately, the mummification process ceased in the fourth century with the arrival of Christianity (Science).

The Science Behind Ancient Egypt’s Mummies
Glencairn Museum

They Understood Infinity

The Ancient Egyptians understood math and the potential for creation, which is a part of why the mummification process was so successful. According to the users of Reddit, “Did you know that the ancient Egyptians were the first people to reach the concept of infinity. They even had a dedicated god of infinity called “heh” who was one of the most important gods in the ogdoad in ancient Egyptian mythology.”

To take it a step further, users of Quora say, “They made significant contributions to mathematics, architecture, medicine, astronomy, and engineering. Their advancements in these fields continue to be studied and admired today.” It’s well known that the Ancient Egyptians were some of the most intelligent people in the world (Quora).

Advertisement
Advertisement