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The Ancient Egyptian Burial Rite of Mummification

Updated on February 16, 2015
DEATH MASK
DEATH MASK

The Ancient Egyptian Burial Rite of Mummification.

Mummification describes the process where a body was embalmed and wrapped , creating the familiar figure of the Ancient Egyptian Mummy. This process was only for the royal family and wealthier classes of Ancient Egypt.

There are few written sources outlining the process whereby the bodies were mummified. Herodotus wrote an account of the mummification process in c450bc but this does not accord with the evidence found in the excavated mummies. The information about the process comes mainly from the examination of the mummified bodies.

A mummified body
A mummified body

EARLY ATTEMPTS AT MUMMIFICATION

Various methods of mummification were used ,each one perfecting problems with the previous attempts. In the Early Dynastic Period c 3100 to c2686 BC the dead body was tightly wrapped in strips of linen that had been soaked in resin. This was not a total success because although the bandages hardened and assumed the shape of the body, the actual body decayed inside the mummy. In the Third Dynasty c 2686 to c2613 the embalmers explored methods to preserve the body within the mummy. They learnt that the key to preservation was dehydration of the body, both internally and externally. The bodies had all their internal organs removed , laying the body straight for easier access and were embalmed in that position. The oldest surviving mummy is from the late Fifth Dynasty c2400bc.

THE PROCESS OF MUMMIFICATION

Scientists have suggested that the process of mummification was as follows:

The body was taken to an ibu – or place of purification, which was located near the River Nile. It would be on the West Bank of the Nile because the West was symbolised by the setting of the sun, the passing of the day and of death. The body was washed not only for practical reasons to make it clean but also to symbolise re birth. They believed that the sun god Re was bathed in the waters of Nun each morning before being re born at dawn. The body was washed in a watery solution of Natron which is a salt that is found along the edges of lakes around Cairo. It was important because it acted as a mild antiseptic and as it absorbed water helped in the drying out of the body but enabling the body to maintain its flexibility.

Anubis the God of embalming
Anubis the God of embalming

Anubis the God of embalming

Once washed the body was removed to the place of embalming. Originally this was a tent but by the time of the late period, with far more bodies being embalmed, mud brick buildings were built. As with all Egyptian activities there was a God of embalming. Anubis was the jackal headed god and the chief embalmer was known as “He who controls the Mysteries” (hery seshta). It is likely that he would have worn a jackal shaped headdress at the time of the ritual. He had a deputy the “Gods seal bearer” (hetemu netjer) formerly a title held by the priests of Osiris. Osiris, murdered by his brother Seth, had been the first to be embalmed as his body had been torn into little pieces and scattered all over the land.

Canopic jars for the removed organs
Canopic jars for the removed organs

ORGANS OF THE BODY REMOVED

Once the body was in the embalming house or tent it was stretched onto a wooden board which was placed upon four wooden blocks. The body had a fairly strict priority of action required. The first priority was the face and it is believed that the head was coated with molten resin to preserve it . From around c1500 bc the brain was taken out and discarded. This is because the brain was thought to be stuffing and that all thought occurred through the heart. To keep the shape of the head, sawdust or resin soaked linen was placed into the brain cavity. The heart was never removed as it was believed to be the source of all thoughts and emotion. They believed that the heart played a vital role on judgement day and would decide if a person could pass into the Afterlife. Although the major organs were removed from the body to reduce the chances of decomposition they were kept and embalmed separately as it was believed that they would be used by the body to function in the After Life. The organs were removed with as little damage as possible to the body. The stomach and intestines were removed through an incision in the lower abdomen and the diaphragm was punctured so the lungs and liver could be removed. Once removed the organs were dried out in natural natron salt, rubbed with unguents and wrapped in linen bandages in four separate packages. The organs were then placed in canopic jars in order to accompany the body to the tomb. From the Twenty first Dynasty these organs have been found replaced inside the body in their wrapped state whilst during the Ptolemaic Period (332 -30 bc) these organs have been found placed between the legs of the body before it was wrapped.

THE DRYING OUT PROCESS

The process of embalming took some time. After washing and the removal of the organs it was packed with temporary stuffing and covered with natron salt for 40 days during which it lost 75% of it weight owing to the reduction in moisture. At this point the stuffing was taken out, the body rinsed out and washed . The body was then carefully dried as any extra water would encourage mould. The body was then stuffed with wads of linen, linen soaked with resin, bags of natron crystals and sawdust to help the body keep its former shape. During the late period c 747 -332 bc bodies have been found which were completely filled with resin.

Now that the body was clean it was anointed with juniper oil, beeswax, matron, spices milk and wine. The incision through which the lungs and liver were removed was stitched up and often covered with gold foil or was adorned with the protective “Eye of Horus”. The nostrils, ears and mouth were plugged with linen, wax or onion or onion skins. It was believed that the onion would help to combat infection in the After Life. If the family of the death were royal or very well off a piece of gold leaf would be placed over the tongue. The body was now coated in resin to toughen it and make it waterproof.


COSMETIC CHANGES

At this point cosmetic changes were made to the body. There are examples of soles of feet and hands being stained by henna, cheeks stained with rouge and lips and eyebrows painted. Sometimes the bodies are clothed including sandals and wigs and on occasion the very rich were mummified with their jewellery.

THE BANDAGING

It was at this point that the prepared body was bandaged. The bandaging took fifteen days and began with the fingers and the toes. A lector priest recited spells whilst the bandagers worked. The bandages were made of linen and were often made of old clothes. Almost 375square metres of linen was used to wrap just one body. The body was wrapped in a yellow shroud before the bandaging began. At each stage of the wrapping it was painted with melted resin. The body was made to look as perfect as possible. If limbs were missing they were artificially created so that the body was as perfect as possible. There was a distinction in the style of wrapping for men and women. Men were wrapped with their arms crossing their genitals whilst women were wrapped with their arms placed on their sides.

THE SHROUD

Once bandaged the body was placed in a shroud which was knotted at both ends and the body was held in place by yet more bandages. The final touch was the placing of a mummy mask over the head and shoulders of the body. The mask was usually made from linen or papyrus stiffened with plaster. The mask was an area in which status was shown. Royal masks were often made out of gold and the wealthy would imitate them by using gilded masks


The process of mummification took seventy days from the arrival of the body at the River for washing. It is believed that a period of 70 days was chosen as this is the period of time when the dog star Sirius could not be seem because of its alignment with the earth and the sun prior to its heliacal rising. This astronomical occurrence heralded the inundation of the River Nile and marked the start of the New Year.

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    • CASE1WORKER profile imageAUTHOR

      CASE1WORKER 

      7 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      CMHypno- I wonder if some of the desecration that is labelled as modern man was in fact the ancients making a bed for their mummy-?

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 

      7 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Very interesting hub case1worker. The thing that has always interested me, is that although the Ancient Egyptians had strong beliefs about preserving the body for eternity, they were not above clearing some poor mummy out of it's tomb and then reusing it for themselves. Every mummy for itself?

    • CASE1WORKER profile imageAUTHOR

      CASE1WORKER 

      7 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      vaalion- thanks for your comment

      AliciaC- i guess that is why only the rich had the mummy process done-

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for a fascinating and very detailed hub. I didn’t realize that the mummification process took so many steps and required so many days to complete.

    • vaalion profile image

      vaalion 

      8 years ago

      Very nice hub especially with all the pictures! Mummification is something that always interested me ever since being a young boy that saw mummy movies or cartoons!

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