Ask A Scientist
How did the Egyptians Mummify People?
Asked by: Cole Tinklepaugh
School: Maine-Endwell Middle School
Teacher: Kevin Wagstaff
Hobbies/Interests: Reading, mowing lawns and playing video games
Career Interest: Restaurant business and chef
Answer from Gerald Kadish, PhD
Distinguished Teaching Professor of History and Near Eastern Studies, Binghamton University
Education: PhD, University of Chicago
From late prehistoric times on, Egyptians of all classes believed that their survival after death depended on the preservation of their bodies and their ability to convince the god of the afterlife that they had led an upright life. Only the elite Egyptians could afford the 70-day process that was normally required to prepare their mummies prior to burial. The earliest preservation involved just placing bodies in a grave in the nearby western desert and then covering with straw mats. By about 2500 BCE (Before the Common Era), Egyptian embalmers developed better methods that remained standard for the next 3,000 years, with minor variations. We know of two cases in which the process took over 200 days.
The method was to remove the internal organs from the body, since they were the most likely to deteriorate. First, an incision was made in the left side of the body through which the internal organs (stomach, intestines, lungs, etc.) were removed. They were placed in four separate jars (called Canopic jars), each protecting the image of a god. Then the brain was removed from the skull with the use of a bronze hook inserted through the nostrils designed to fragment the brain to make it easier to extract the pieces.
Only the heart was preserved and then placed back into the abdominal cavity. The Egyptians thought the heart was the source of thought and feelings; the brain was just stuffing and could be discarded. When the deceased appeared in judgment before the god Osiris, the heart was weighed in a scale against the symbol of truth to determine that they merited entry into eternity. It was thought that those who had led an evil life, would be swallowed whole, by a monster (part leopard, part crocodile, part hippopotamus).
Then, after the body was washed, inside and out, it was embedded in a substance called natron, a mixture of naturally occurring sodium compounds which absorbed all the moisture, thereby preventing the body from decaying. Once the body had been desiccated, it was treated with various substances such as pine resin and honey, which inhibited bacterial action. In later times, the body might be coated with a tar-like material to further prevent moisture and bacteria from playing a role. Finally, the body was wrapped in linen bandages that had been impregnated with natron. The result was considered satisfactory.