Egyptian Mummies: Their Importance to Egyptian Civilization
This article explains how Egyptian mummies were made, their religious importance, and how mummies are helping scientists understand what life was like in Ancient Egypt.
An Egyptian Mummy
What are Mummies?
A mummy is a body whose soft tissues are preserved naturally (for example due to climatic conditions such as drought or heavy frost or lack of air) or for intentional reasons such as special funeral rites. Mummies have been part of the funeral customs of various peoples throughout history, but in popular culture mummies are most closely associated with Ancient Egypt, where the art of embalming and creating mummies had reached a high state of development.
The word "Mummy" comes from the medieval Latin "Mumia", a corruption of the Arabic word for bitumen which was one component of the Egyptian ritual of embalming.
Natural Versus Artificial Mummies
Although mummies are closely identified with Egyptian culture and religion, the ancient Egyptians did not start embalming their dead to intentionally create mummies until the 1st Dynasty. Before that, the dead were simply placed in red wooden crates, directly in the sand. The aridity of the environment caused a rapid dehydration of the body and preserved from further decomposition so some bodies were mummified by the natural elements.
Ancient Enyptian Mummies
Later religious thought held that it was necessary to preserve the body so that the soul could return to it. The Ancient Egyptians believed that after death they would face a judgment in which their soul was weighed in a balance against a feather. If sins committed during their lifetime made the soul heavy, then the spirit of the deceased would be cast out to be devoured by horrible monsters. Those who were pure of soul and passed the test would be permitted to join the gods in the abode of the dead, which was ruled by the god Anubis.
The Egyptian conceived life after death to be very much like life on earth. The dead would have a body, would need sustenance such as food, and many of the comforts and conveniences of this life. The egyptians believed that one could not exist in the afterlife without a body. This belief led to the creation of elaborate funeral practices designed to preserve the body from putrefaction: priests would remove the internal organs and place them in canopic jars; the body itself was treated with various chemicals known by the Egyptians to prevent rotting, and then the body was carefully wrapped in bandages. The sophistication and care used in the mummification process depended on the ability of the deceased's family to pay; members of the royal household received the best care and their bodies are most commonly found. But ordinary Egyptians also paid to have their loved one's mummified and their bodies are also frequently found.
For religious reasons the Ancient Egyptians also mummified the bodies of sacred animals such as cats, crocodiles and the Apis bulls.
The mummies were then deposited in tombs of varying in luxury and elaborateness, depending on the importance and wealth of the deceased. It is believed that many of the pyramids were meant as tombs for the Pharoah's mummy, though no mummies have been found within the pyramids themselves, possibly due to grave robbers. In later periods of Egyptian civilization the royal mummies were buried in niches carved into the solid rock in the Valley of the Kings, an area which constituted a vast city of the dead. This area was repeatedly pillaged by grave robbers but has yielded important artifacts even in modern times, which attests to the wealth of funeral objects that must originally have been deposited with the dead.
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The Scientific Importance of Mummies
The mummies were then deposited in tombs of varying in luxury and elaborateness, depending on the importance and wealth of the deceased. It is believed that many of the pyramids were meant as tombs for the Pharaoh's mummy, though no mummies have been found within the pyramids themselves, possibly due to grave robbers. In later periods of Egyptian civilization the royal mummies were buried in niches carved into the solid rock in the Valley of the Kings, an area which constituted a vast city of the dead. This area was repeatedly pillaged by grave robbers but has yielded important artifacts even in modern times, which attests to the wealth of funeral objects that must originally have been deposited with the dead.
The skill of the priest embalmers as well as the dryness of the Egyptian climate has ensured that mummies thousands of years of old have survived to the present day. The Egyptian practice of making mummies itself continued for thousands of years, finally dying out when Egypt became Christian and later was conquered by the Muslims. As a result, there are thousands of mummies representing almost every period of Egyptian history.
Since mummies were typically buried with possessions meant to ease the afterlife of the deceased the burial chambers are treasure troves for archaeologists. The mummies themselves have yielded important scientific information as to the diet, health and types of diseases affecting the Egyptians. The mummy of the famous King Tut has been subjected to the most scientific scrutiny including CT scans in an effort to determine cause of death as well as uncover clues about the daily life of the Ancient Egyptians. DNA tests on the preserved tissue of mummies has also yielded important information about the ethnic origins of the Ancient Egyptians.
In some cases, forensic scientists have been able to reconstruct life like 3d images of what the Egyptian looked like when they were alive.
The Mummy Craze - Collectors and Grave Robbers
Unfortunately, mummies have not always been studied scientifically. In the late 1700s Napoleon led a military expedition to Egypt. Napoleon's expedition was accompanied by a team of scientists, who brought back long forgotten knowledge about Egypt as well as numerous artefacts, including mummies. This led to a revival of interest by Europeans in Egyptian culture and what has proved to be an enduring fascination with mummies. Collectors vied with each other to acquire mummies, and so many tombs were looted.
As well, in the 1700s and 1800s popular superstition held that medicines made from the bandages of mummies or even the embalmed body of the deceased could cure various illnesses. Many mummies were ground up into potions for gullible Europeans who were willing to pay large sums of money to create medicines made from the ground up dust of ancient Egyptian mummies.
The Importance of Egyptian Mummies in the Modern World
Mummies have gone through a transformation over the centuries. During Ancient Egypt, they were the holy abode of the dead, the vessel that would provide a house and life to the soul in the hereafter. In the late 18th century, they became objects of curiosity for wealthy Europeans, who collected them for their own sake or to make misguided potions from their ground up remains. Today, Egyptian mummies are as important as ever, providing us with a link to the past and a bygone civilization.