Volume II, Number 6 June 1st, 2001
Mummies of Ancient Egypt:
The Process and Beyond
by Catherine C. Harris
The walls are filled with colorful etchings and words of wisdom. Text from the three most important books of ancient Egypt: The Book of the Dead, The Book of the Gates, and The Book of the Underworld, cover the walls as far as the eye can see. The names of the wealthy pharaohs are present on the walls of the tombs in keeping with the belief that to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.
The burial process was elaborate and time consuming. The tomb preparation began long before death occurred. Walls were painted with religious and life scenes, furniture was brought in, prayers were recorded on the walls and various objects, and food lists were made and placed within the tomb.
Since Egyptians believed that mummification was essential to the safe passage from the living to the afterlife, people were, more than not, buried in this manner. The more elaborate burials were reserved for royalty and their families, priests, and other high-ranking officials. Even those people not able to afford the most elaborate burial valued their family members enough to give the most basic mummification.
The actual mummification process took approximately seventy days. The body of the deceased was ritually cleansed and purified to begin the journey into the afterlife. The next stop involved removing the inner organs, such as the liver, intestines, lungs, and stomach. In order to dry out the organs and prevent decay they were placed in natron, a type of salt used for drying. The organs were wrapped in linen strips and placed in canopic jars. The body cavity was then stuffed with additional natron.
It's interesting to note that the embalmers never removed the heart of the deceased. It was believed that the heart was the center of a person. The Egyptians considered the heart to be a central point of being and intelligence.
After the internal body organs were dealt with, the embalmers removed the brain and surrounding tissue. It's a rare person that doesn't cringe at the details of how this was done. The embalmer would use a special hooked instrument. He would insert the hooked instrument through the nostrils and pull out bits of brain tissue. This was a delicate procedure and one that was done with extreme care. The potential to disfigure the face during the process of removing the brain made this part of the mummification process extremely important. However, the actual salvage of the brain was not considered, as the Egyptians considered it an unimportant part of the body.
At this point in the procedure, the deceased was placed on a table that was elevated at one end to allow moisture to drip away from the body. The body was covered in natron to remove the moisture. This allowed the body to slowly dry out and retain much of its shape. The actual drying of the body took approximately forty days.
After the body was sufficiently dried out, the natron was removed and the body was washed carefully. At this point, the body began to look like the stereotypical mummy, shrunken and dried out. Often, to make the body more life-like, pieces of linen were added to sunken places and false eyes were placed within the eye cavities.
The deceased was wrapped in linen at this point in the procedure. Each mummy required hundreds of yards of linen to be sufficiently prepared for the afterlife. Each finger and toe was wrapped individually and then the entire hand and foot. During the process of wrapping the mummy, good luck charms, words of wisdom, and prayers were placed within the layers of the wrappings. It was also common for a mask, or likeness, of the deceased to be placed upon the mummy's face between layers of head wrappings. Throughout this process, the mummy was coated with resin and the wrapping resumed. Finally, the mummy was wrapped in a shroud or cloth.
When the mummy was completed and ready for burial, the ceremony and rituals began. The priests would use a special instrument to touch parts of the body to open it for the afterlife. This ritual is called the "Opening of the Mouth." The instrument enabled the priest in opening the senses of the dead and, the ceremony allowed the dead person to eat and speak in the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that this ritual released the Ba and Ka to travel into the next world.
The Egyptians had such a love for life that it was important for them to continue that enjoyment even after death. Such elaborate burials were a part of the acceptance of death. The Egyptians were not preoccupied with death, but they did spend much time preparing for the time when their life on this earth would cease and they would enter the afterlife.
When all the rituals were complete, the mummy was sealed within the coffin, placed in the burial chamber, and the tomb was sealed.
The Egyptians believed that the mummy housed the soul and spirit. Their belief was often thought of as complex and involved three spirits. The Ka, Ba, and Akh. The Ka was the essence of the person, like their double, and it remained in the tomb and made use of the offerings and objects there. The Ba was free to move about, in or out of the tomb. The Akh traveled throughout the Underworld and to the entrance of the Afterlife.
There are three inhabitants of the Afterlife: the dead, the gods, and the Akh. When the person dies the Ba and the Ka are separated from the body, but they do not die. They are released through ritual into the next world. The goal in the Underworld is to live in ones Ka, as this holds the physical resemblance to the deceased. In order to do this, the Ba and the Ka must overcome the dangers of the Underworld and reunite to form the Akh. The Akh will then have made a successful transition to the Underworld, and will live with the gods. Those who fail to make the connection are called the dead, and they have no hope of ever living a renewed life.
Valley of the Kings
Some of the most preserved mummies have been found in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. This was the burial ground for the rich, the pharaohs, and their family members. The tombs are elaborate and ornate. The walls are filled with inscriptions and paintings. The tombs were filled with rare art, jewels, and anything the deceased would need to live well in the Afterlife. These tombs gained notoriety as they began to reveal the secrets of the past.
The most famous of the Egyptian mummies is Tutankhamen. He was the boy king of the 18th Dynasty. He died of unknown causes as a teenager and was mummified and entombed in the Valley of the Kings. His tomb was discovered intact, which was rare due to the vandals and grave robbers that pillaged the Valley of the Kings for 3000 years.
Perhaps the most interesting, yet ignored, tombs are those that are barren of finery and wall inscriptions. The undecorated tombs within the Valley of the Kings make one wonder at the people who were entombed there.
Dr. Donald P. Ryan, of Pacific Lutheran University, is one of the foremost experts in the study of the undecorated tombs. While other expeditions and research teams passed over the undecorated tombs for the more elaborate tombs, Dr. Ryan and his research team tackled the mysterious uninscribed tombs.
Dr. Ryan spoke about his visit to Egypt to the Valley of the Kings. "During my first visit to the Valley of the Kings as a graduate student twenty years ago, I was, of course, impressed by the large decorated royal tombs of the New Kingdom. But I also noticed many little shafts and holes here and there that I likewise found intriguing. I later learned that most of these were small uninscribed tombs that had been located by earlier excavators, who seemed to be far more interested in finding the larger tombs of the pharaohs. Yet, a couple of these smaller tombs had survived virtually intact (the tombs of Yuya and Thuya and that of Maihepri), and the very location of such tombs in the Valley indicates that they belonged to people of considerable importance. I studied a series of six of these tombs and found them fascinating. In two of the tombs, we found three mummies whose pose of mummification suggests that they are royal females. There are many royal family members (especially from the 18th dynasty) whose tombs have never been identified. Perhaps some of them are to be found where many archaeologists have passed and millions of tourists have walked by, in the smaller tombs of the Valley of the Kings."
Seeing an image of an unnamed female mummy in a small, unmarked tomb can have an effect on even the most experienced archeologist. Dr. Ryan related his own experience at seeing the unmarked tombs and the inhabitants. "I was very surprised at the fact that many of the mummies remained in these small tombs. But, it was clear from even the few that had survived relatively intact, that their bodies and burials had been brutally ransacked by ancient robbers. The Egyptians believed that the perpetuation of one's name would cause one to live. Through their destructive processes in these tombs with blank walls, the thieves in their greed have practically denied these people their eternity. Archaeologists have a chance, at least, of rectifying the situation by examining the surviving burial debris and human remains to provide clues to the identity and history of these individuals so privileged to have been interred in the royal necropolis. Although there has been a lot of speculation, perhaps too much, about the identities of the occupants in some of the tombs I have studied, it is fair to say that unfortunately we cannot with certainty provide specific names for these individuals at this time. What I can say is that through our archaeological work and conservation measures, these tombs have been restored to some semblance of dignity and their occupants remain peacefully within. Perhaps in the future, we will have enough evidence to rescue them from anonymity."
The tombs of ancient Egypt speak loudly to us from the past. Should we take the time to listen, we can learn, not only about the ancient lifestyles, but also about the intense respect the Egyptians held for their lives after death. During your visit to Egypt, take some time to visit the Valley of the Kings, and while you admire the elaborate tombs, give a thought to the undecorated tombs that hold the remains of those robbed of their eternity.
Mr. Mohamed Arabi: The "Bird Man" of Aswan By Dr. Susan L. Wilson
A Brief Look at the Sinai By Jimmy Dunn
Mummies of Ancient Egypt: The Process and Beyond By Catherine C. Harris
The Lost Feeling, Or Was It a Mummy? By Arnvid Aakre
Breaking the Color Code By Anita Stratos
Alabaster: Egypt's Rock of the Ages By Sonny Stengle
Wreck Diving in the Egyptian Red Sea By Ned Middleton
The Animals of Ancient Egypt By Caroline Seawright
Editor's Commentary By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes
Book Reviews Various Editors
Hotel Reviews By Jimmy Dunn & Juergen Stryjak
Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt By Mary K Radnich
The Month in Review By John Applegate
Egyptian Exhibitions By Staff
Egyptian View-Point By Adel Murad
Nightlife Various Editors
Egypt On Screen By Carolyn Patricia Scott
Restaurant Reviews Various Editors
Shopping Around Various Editors
Web Reviews By Siri Bezdicek