How to Make a Mummy

Mummification is indelibly linked with ancient Egypt, and mummies continue to fascinate us. However, the earliest mummies were likely made by accident, when bodies were placed in the dry desert sand. These mummies were probably accidentally found by the ancient Egyptians (after being disturbed by robbers or animals) and gave birth to the idea of mummification. The ancient Egyptian word for mummy was saah. The present-day word is derived from the Persian/Arabic word mum, which means pitch or bitumen, which was thought to have been used in making mummies. It was believed that the preserved body would provide a permanent house for the soul in the afterlife. The process of mummification changed throughout Egyptian history, reaching an acme in the 21st Dynasty.

The classic method of mummification was as follows: a slit was made in the left side of the body, and the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines were removed. The heart, believed to be necessary for rebirth, was left in place. The viscera were mummified separately, wrapped, and placed either in canopic jars or back in the body cavity prior to burial, depending on the period. Then a chisel was inserted up the nose and through the ethmoid bone. A long, slim metal instrument was then used to poke, prod, and punch the brain before it was teased out of the nostril. The brain cavity was then filled with resin to purify it.

The body was first washed with palm wine, then packed with natron (a mixture of salt and carbonate found in the Wadi Natrun, northwest of Cairo), incense, and herbs. This process was repeated a few times over the course of 40 days. Then the body cavity was emptied, packed with resinous bandages and herbs, and sewn up.

After it was clean, the body was adorned with amulets and jewelry, wrapped elaborately in bandages while being prayed over by priests, anointed with oils, and enshrouded. The wrapping and anointing took another 30 days—a total of 70 days were required to make a good-quality mummy. During certain periods of Egyptian history a mask made of cartonnage (linen, papyrus, and plaster prepared like papier-mâché) or gold (like that of Tutankhamun) was placed over the head and shoulders of the mummy.

The body package was then put into a wooden coffin, which, in turn, was placed in a sarcophagus (like a coffin, but larger and generally of stone), before being placed in the tomb. The canopic jars with the viscera were buried next to the body. Sometimes a funerary text containing spells to help the deceased in the afterlife was written on papyrus and placed within the coffin.

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