Mother’s Day Special: How to make a mummy

Today’s post is by Becca from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are not experts, but we are people with a passionate interest in the museum and its objects. We each bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum.

Mother’s Day Special: How to make a mummy

Today’s blog post will be all about mummies … wait … what do you mean you didn’t say Egyptian? … oh … well it’s all I’ve got, so we’re going to have to roll with it … I’m sure no-one will notice.

So first things first, why do we call Egyptian mummies, well, ‘mummies’? The word mummy comes from the the Persian or Arabic word mumia meaning pitch or bitumen. This is thought to be a reference to the blackened appearance of Egyptian mummies, and the black tar-like substance that comes from the ‘mummy mountain’ in Persia.

This substance was highly sought after for its supposed medicinal properties, leading to the use of ‘powdered mummy’ up until the late 18th century. The use of mummy, or mummia as it was sold, became so popular that there was a trade in fake mummies (made from recently deceased criminals or even animals) just to keep up with the demand.

Apothecary vessels containing ‘mummia’ or powdered mummy.

Now we’ve cleared that up, onto the big question, how do you make a mummy?

On the understanding you don’t go out intent on giving it a go using your annoying neighbour/bus driver/boss, we will cover the basic process of Ancient Egyptian Mummification. Unfortunately for Egyptologists (but perhaps fortunately for the aforementioned neighbour/ bus driver/ boss) there is no written step-by-step guide from ancient times detailing the process. Our current understanding of mummification comes from the examination of the mummies in our custodianship using a variety of biomedical investigative and experimental techniques, and from the writings of Greek historians such as Herodotus.

herodotus
Available from: http://thehundredbooks.com/herodotus.htm

Bust of Herodotus and fragment of the text from the ‘Oxyrhynchus Papyrus’

According to Herodotus there were three types of mummification available; from the least expensive – which involved the washing out of the body with a ‘purge’ and covering the body with natron – to the most costly which is the process we most recognise today.

  • The removal of the organs from the body and the brain either through the nose or via the eye socket (as is the case with Asru)
Manchester Museum 16.4.14 106
Asru. Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum.
  • The viscera were washed and dried in natron.
    Then depending on the traditions at the time they were either; wrapped and placed in the appropriate canopic jars, or wrapped and placed in a bundle on the legs, or wrapped and placed back into the body. These last two options occurred after the washing of the body.
  • The body was rinsed out with palm wine mixed with spices and a temporary natron packing was placed into the body.
  • The body was covered in natron salt for 40 days (according to experiments with animals and the occasional willing human … I repeat willing).
  • The temporary packing was removed and the the body was washed.
  • Resin was applied to the body (sometimes the bandages would be coated in resin in order to stick errant bits of linen down).
  • New packing was inserted and the mummy was wrapped in linen bandages, the mummy is then returned to the family.

As you can see the process of mummification takes a lot of time (70 days in all) and varied according to the traditions at the time. As from ancient to modern times with hairstyles and fashions, the process of mummification; such as brain removal,where to put the organs back, and even coffins varied too.

The main reason we know this variation occurs is thanks to the work that Egyptologists carry out in museums and other research institutions across the world. Technology such as x-ray and CT scans allow us to examine the mummies in a non destructive manner and indicate the process most likely undertaken on the individual mummy.

MEN_MEN_Manchester_Museu003367_3_3_5819759
Available from: http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/manchester-museum-scan-mummies-to-find-1286047

Demetria wife of Icaious, being CT scanned at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital

The examination of mummies and the analysis of these techniques however will have to wait for another blog post … I know, I’m sad about it too.

Stay tuned for more dead stuff!

Rebecca Horne

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum.

Read more posts from the Visitor Team about Egypt,
The Gods and Their Makers
Amelia B. Edwards – A Thousand Miles up the Nile
Encountering Corpses
The Egyptian Scarab Beetle – Dung Beetles Do the Dirty Work!

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