The art of making a mummy

     The tombs of the ancient Egyptians, and the mummies within, have captured the imagination of people around the world.  It appears that it was considered important that the body remain intact so the deceased could enter the next life, so ancient embalmers became expert at preservation. 

     The embalmers were called in as soon as death took place, and the deceased was taken to the “ibu” or “tent of purification.”  This was the beginning of a ritual that took about 70 days.  Strictly prescribed rituals accompanied every step of the process, to ensure that the deceased would be able to enter the afterlife properly.

     The body was carefully washed and then taken to the “wabei,” or “place of embalming,” where the internal organs were removed.  In most cases, a long incision was made on the left side of the abdomen (with the exact line of the cut marked by a priest).  Another priest performed the operation with a flint knife.  As part of the ritual, this priest was then chased away with abuse and stone-throwing.

An Egyptian mummy kept in the Vatican Museums.

     The lungs, stomach, intestines, and liver were removed and the organs were preserved and put into canopic jars — beautifully carved containers specially designed for the purpose.  The heart was seen as the seat of intelligence and was not removed from the body, and the kidneys were also left in place — apparently because they were not deemed important.  The brain was removed by punching a hole in the thin bone at the top of the nostrils, or through an incision at the nape of the neck.  A coating of resin was applied to the face.

     The body cavity was packed with temporary stuffing, and the body was laid on a bed that sloped gently toward the foot, where a basin caught anything draining from the body.  The deceased was then covered with piles of a drying agent, usually natron (a mineral salt) and left to dry for about 40 days.  After this period he body was virtually beyond any further natural decay. 

     The body was removed from the natron, washed, and taken to another area where it was emptied and restuffed with materials which might include resin-soaked linen, natron, lichen, onions, mud, or sometimes sawdust mixed with other substances.  The deceased was rubbed with perfumes and oils (juniper oil, beeswax, spices, milk and wine). Orifices, such as the nostrils, were plugged with wax or linen.  Sometimes pads were put under the eyes and in the cheeks to restore natural contours of the face. 

     Wrapping the body took a full 15 days, and was accompanied by prayers and ritual.  The linen bandages were either specially woven or made of ordinary household linen provided for the purpose and torn in strips.  The strips were sometimes left plain, and sometimes decorated with dyes or written spells.  The strips were often more than 16 yards long and between 2 1/2 to 8 inches wide.  One mummy had more than 1,010 square yards of linen in its wrappings.

     The head was tied in place with a band to hold the jaw firm.  Then the toes and fingers (and genitals, in the case of a man) were wrapped individually with narrow strips.  The arms and legs were bandaged next, and then the torso.  Throughout the layers of wrappings, amulets and pieces of jewelry were placed and then covered with melted resins made from a variety of saps from coniferous trees as well as gum resins based on myrrh.  The resins penetrated right through to the body tissues, resulting in rock-hard flesh.  After drying and hardening, the resins and bandages became black and pitch-like.  

     After this initial wrapping, the arms and legs were held close to the body and the remains were bandaged from head to foot in many layers of linen to create the traditional mummy shape.    Pads of linen were inserted here and there to make the final shape satisfactory.  A mask was usually placed over the face and shoulders.  Ordinary people had masks made of painted cartonnage, a substance not unlike papier mache and royals had elaborate golden and enameled masks.  After the mask was in place, more resins and oils were poured over the mummy.  (It’s estimated that King Tutankhamen had about 4 gallons of fluid poured over his body.) 

     Finally, the mummy was placed inside a coffin.  It is believed that the relatives of the deceased were allowed to see the mummy in the coffin before the lid was closed, because floral garlands, bouquets, berries and petals have been found carefully placed on some mummies.  Often the first coffin was nested inside several other coffins.  Once the coffining process was completed, the mourners and priests went to a temporary structure outside the tomb where the last stages of the funeral ritual were carried out.

Published by on April 2013. Filed under Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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