by Dr. Abdel H. Ragab
Mummification is an ancient mysterious art. It was important because the ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife where the spirit, the ka, would return to the original body. The process of mummification took many years to perfect, probably a thousand years.
The whole process depends on desiccation. Bacteria and fungi, like all other living organisms, require water to survive. Therefore, if water is removed from the body, putrefaction will not occur.
Mummification was carried out in special places called "The House of the Dead." The morticians were qualified people who carried on this art. They were outcasts from the rest of the population, since people feared they that carried infections from dead people. The process of mummification took 70 days and was expensive. It was reserved for royalty and nobility.
The process began by laying the corpse on a table. An incision was made on the left side of the abdomen, and all the organs were taken out, but not the heart. The individual organs were wrapped in a cloth with natron salt and put in canopic jars (Fig. 1). Natron salt is a combination of sodium bicarbonate and sodium chloride, and was obtained from the Natron Valley in the Western Desert (Wadi El-Natron).
The brain was removed by making a puncture through the nose and then the remnants of the brain were removed and discarded. The eyeballs were also removed and artificial eyeballs were put in their place.
The next step was to cover the body with natron salt for 40 days (Fig. 2). The salt was changed every few days. At the end of this period the body was completely dessicated and had lost 70% of its weight (since the body is 70% water). After that the abdomen was again opened and filled with myrrh and frankincense to cover the smell. Different products of resin and coconut oil were spread on the skin making it impermeable to the atmospheric humidity (Fig. 3)
Afterwards the body was wrapped in linen bandages (Tutankhamun's body was wrapped in 12 layers of bandage) (Fig. 4). Amulets were spread over the body to keep the evil spirits away and a copy of the Book of the Dead papyrus rolls were put next to the body to guide him through the afterlife (Fig. 5).
Figures 4 and 5
The body was then put in a sarcophagus and carried to the burial chamber. The pharaoh or the nobleman's favorite animal was also mummified and all his important possessions were also put in his tomb.
The priest then performed the Opening of the Mouth ceremony to ensure the return of his senses and his ability to respond to questions in the afterlife.