There is no more typically Egyptian object than a mummy, unless it is a pyramid; and both represent essential elements in the equipment for eternity. Mummies have often been the villains in modern horror tales and films—another illustration of the fact that we still find a dead body an object of fear. Many years ago, when I first became interested in ancient Egypt, my indiscriminate reading led me to a particularly ghoulish, true (?) mummy story. Thanks to several kindly readers, I was able to track it down, and I will now relate it to you.
The archaeologist-protagonist of my tale was Arthur Weigall, at one time Inspector of Antiquities for Upper Egypt, and author of a number of popular books. One day he and his crew found a tomb wherein lay a mummy. By evening, when his crew had gone home, Weigall was working with the mummy in the depths of the tomb, where he had descended by means of a rope. Absorbed in his task, he suddenly realized that the tomb had become very dark, and looking up, he was horrified to see a mass of black clouds obscuring the small square high above which led to the open air. One of the infrequent Egyptian storms had come up, as they do, with startling suddenness.
Weigall knew that by morning, when his crew came back, the tomb would be flooded. He was in no danger, having his rope; but his now-unwrapped mummy, for which he had apparently conceived an inordinate affection, would never survive a wetting. He had to get it up and out, or it would be lost.
He came to the conclusion that there was only one way out of the difficulty. He would have to sling the mummy on his back and climb the rope. The problem was, how to get it attached to him? He seems not to have had any extra rope, which was careless, but by no means fatally so. He decided to put the mummy’s arms around his neck.
Painfully he inched his way up the rope, hand over hand and foot over foot. Above, the sky was ominously black; thunder rumbled distantly, like the remote roaring of an Egyptian lion goddess. All at once a bright streak of lightning cleft the threatening clouds; startled, Weigall slipped and slid down a few feet. And as he did so, the mummy moved. Its clasped hands slithered down over his breast and its head dropped; when he turned his own head, Weigall found himself staring directly into the withered eyes and fleshless grin of the old woman’s face, which was now resting coquettishly on his shoulder.
The rest of the story is anticlimax; but even now, after an unmentionable number of years, I still think it’s one of the best mummy stories I have ever read. Weigall wrote with flair and verve, and the only reason why I put a question mark after the word “true” is that he sometimes preferred literary effect to accuracy.
In one sense it is irrelevant to ask why the ancient Egyptian needed a mummy in order to survive death. He obviously thought he did, or there would not be so many mummies. We have already mentioned the principle of sympathetic magic as one explanation for the attentions paid to the corpse, but it is not necessarily the complete answer. Once again, we will understand the Egyptian methods better if we first look briefly at the techniques used by other people to dispose of their dead.
Although mummies have been found in many parts of the world besides Egypt, mummification as a method of disposal of the dead is comparatively rare. Leaving aside such exotic processes as exposure to birds of prey and ritual cannibalism, the most common techniques, by a large margin, are two in number: inhumation and cremation.
Modern scholars who like logical systems have tried to find some relationship between the type of disposal used by a particular culture and the contemporary views of the hereafter. Is cremation in itself a denial of survival after death? No. We have already agreed that the body does not live again, no matter how carefully it is treated; therefore, the destruction of the body need not affect the existence of the soul. But if the soul is freed by the conflagration which consumes the body, it ought to rise, on the lifting smoke, to a celestial paradise. Conversely, inhumation ought to imply a belief in a subterranean afterlife.
It doesn’t work that way—possibly because ancient people were not as interested in consistency as the frustrated scholars who study them. Some cremation peoples believed in subterranean afterworlds, and some inhumators thought of paradise as “heaven.” There seems to be no essential difference in dogma between cremation and burial in the earth. Cremation burials include such features as elaborate tombs, sumptuous grave goods, and food offerings. In both methods of disposal something of the physical individual is preserved; and after a few hundred years or so there is very little difference to be seen in the final results of the two processes.
Mummification, then, cannot be regarded as the ultimate development of inhumation—the preservation of at least part of the body—as opposed to cremation—the utter destruction of the body. Mummification is a separate, and a special, technique.
We must distinguish first of all between embalming and mummification, and between accidental and deliberate preservation of the body. Mummification, which is basically a process of desiccation, is only one form of embalming—the intentional preservation of the body from decay. Embalming by the injection of preservative materials is relatively new. Some attempts were made, in ancient and medieval times, to preserve tissue by the application of chemicals or vegetable substances, but most of the materials used by ancient embalmers were, in fact, quite useless for the purpose for which they were employed. In a few cases the embalmers hit on a substance which did preserve tissue; this was usually a desiccating agent, and the result was a mummy.
Mummies themselves may be deliberate or accidental. Perhaps the best preserved of all bodies—not really mummies—are products of a special environment: the peat bogs of Europe. These bodies are really remarkably lifelike; they have none of the wrinkled, withered look of a genuine mummy, but preserve the texture of clothing and the very expression on the corpse’s face. (It is usually not pleasant.) The chemicals in the soil transmuted cloth and flesh into a leatherlike substance. These bodies are the remains of careless pedestrians who missed their footing, or of criminals whose bodies were tossed into the bogs to get rid of them, or of victims sacrificed to a god. They are accidentally preserved.
In classical and medieval times the bodies of royalty were often subjected to some sort of embalming. Some were successes, others were horrible failures. However, most of the successful examples must be viewed as accidental mummies, for they owe their survival to fortuitously favorable conditions of air or soil rather than to the materials which were meant to embalm them. Most of the bodies treated by the embalming techniques of olden times are in terrible condition today. Visitors to the catacombs of Rome are shown bodies of “embalmed” early Christians who, if they had known what they were going to look like two thousand years later, would have begged to be excused. A skeleton is beautiful by comparison.
We must now consider cases of deliberate, successful mummification. Since the Egyptian mummies are the finest of the type, and the oldest, it was once suggested that all other intentional mummies were cases of cultural transmission from Egypt. Mummies are found in South America, Australia, and New Mexico, among other places, so this would mean that the Egyptians and their friends really got around.
The foremost exponent of the diffusion theory was no amateur, but a very distinguished scholar indeed—Grafton Elliot Smith, one of the first qualified medical men to study the physical anthropology of the ancient Egyptians. His book on Egyptian mummies, written in collaboration with Warren Dawson—another doctor, and a disciple of Smith’s theories—is still a standard work on the subject. Smith’s name is honored in Egyptology, but I doubt if any reputable scholar today would support his diffusion theory. None of the attempts to prove contact between the Old and New Worlds in ancient times has been successful, nor is there any real similarity between mummies of Egypt and those of the Western Hemisphere—except for the fact that all of them were mummified. As we shall see, Egyptian mummies were treated in a distinctive manner.
Peruvian mummies, perhaps the best known of all the New World types, were surely not accidental; they were meant to be preserved. Although there is some evidence of evisceration, they are primarily the product of climatic conditions as favorable as those of Egypt—dry cold instead of dry heat. The Egyptian cadavers were usually extended, but the Peruvian cases are bundled up; they look as if they were huddled against the cold. Cold has also preserved some bodies from the northern parts of North America—the Aleutians and Alaska. In the south of the same continent, another unique environment “pickled” the bodies of Indians of New Mexico and Kentucky in the saltpeter mines of those areas. These mummies, though deliberately placed in the mines, were not eviscerated.
The use of fire to dry bodies is also known; but in Nicaragua, for instance, this preliminary mummification was only temporary. After a year the body was cremated. A good many of these mummification techniques preserved the flesh for a limited time only. In various areas of the Pacific, evisceration and embalming of a rude sort was known, but infrequent. The Samoan mummies lasted for only thirty years or so, and the Tahitian variety were only good for a few months. A common procedure here was the pricking of the skin in order to allow the fluids of decomposition to escape, which, so far as we know, was never done in Egypt.
The same procedure was followed with the mummies from the Torres Straits area between Australia and New Zealand. I have never seen one of these mummies—nor, to be honest, have I tried very hard to do so—but the photographs show them to have been fairly successful. They look vaguely like Egyptian mummies, except for the bamboo frames to which they are bound. It was on such frames that the embalming process was carried out; the body was raised and suspended from the bamboo. I will spare the reader further details; they make rather repulsive reading. By comparison, the Egyptian process is fairly antiseptic. Suffice it to say that the two techniques have nothing more in common than the aim of the process made inevitable. There are just too many difficulties in the diffusion theory, besides the fact that none of the other mummies show any important procedural resemblances to those of Egypt. Not only are the distances involved very great, but the time gap between ancient Egypt and the Pacific and American cultures is altogether too long.
In one case, however, the notion of mummification may have come to another society from Egypt. The Baganda tribe of Uganda mummify dead kings—or at least they used to; I can’t see why they should have given it up, since it is no more bizarre than our mortuary techniques. Scholars who have studied the Baganda seem to think they exhibit other traits which resemble those of ancient Egypt, but whether the resemblance is more than coincidental, or, if it is, whether the connection lies in direct borrowing from Egypt by the Baganda ancestors or in a common “African” heritage, no man can say, nor I. At any rate, it is not impossible that the Egyptian and Bagandese embalmings are related.
Possible contacts between Egypt and the Canary Islands, where mummies were also manufactured, are hard to prove. The Guanches of the Canaries—who are, I understand, extinct—were of Berber stock, but it is unlikely that they left Africa, if that is where they came from, before the Egyptian mortuary cult faded out. According to reports, the Guanche mummies were preserved by the resin of a particular tree found in the islands. Resin was used in embalming by the Egyptians, and cedar oil seems to have preservative qualities. These mummies were extremely desiccated, some weighing no more than seven pounds. It seems unlikely, offhand, that resin alone could so dehydrate the tissue.
Obviously, preservation of the body is not so much a result of theological notions relating to immortality as of more or less fortuitous physical conditions. Most of the people who believe in a life hereafter—which includes just about everyone—are satisfied with burial or with cremation. The preservation of the body is not a necessity for immortality. When the climate was right, or when the tribe had a handy natural embalming workshop such as the saltpeter mines, then we get mummies. Really effective embalming techniques could not be developed until a certain level of physiological and chemical knowledge had been attained. Sometimes a culture might stumble on an effective desiccating agent; but even then it was necessary to keep the body in a suitable environment or, sooner or later, decay took place.
Egyptian mummies depend for their endurance on the hot dry climate of Egypt. Mummies in damp tombs often decayed despite the best efforts of the embalmer; other mummies began to deteriorate after they were moved out of their tombs.
Of course, the theological factor cannot be dismissed. Mummification in Egypt, as elsewhere, may have begun because of environmental conditions, but the complex profession we are about to study would not have developed if a need had not been felt. This need, as I have suggested, can probably be explained in terms of sympathetic magic. A man would live in Paradise as long as some part of him continued to exist in this world—but no longer. A statue, or even a name, could provide the necessary focal point for the spirit. But the best, and most direct, physical remnant of a man was his own body.
Everyone seems to agree that the Egyptians probably got the idea of embalming their dead from seeing the accidentally preserved bodies of their distant ancestors. In prehistoric times the dead were buried in the sand, without coffins or wrappings. The dry air and the hot, baking sand preserved the fragile flesh, as they have also preserved cloth and wood and withered flowers. Laid in shallow graves, sometimes the dead reappeared. When Breasted was excavating in Nubia, he had to pass through a cemetery each day on his way to work, and, across his path, he saw the feet of a corpse which had been uncovered by the wind. They were as rough and callused as the feet of the living Nubians who worked at the excavation. As wind and time uncovered these remains for Breasted, so they must have exposed older specimens for the Egyptians of 3000 B.C., who lived at the time of the unification of the Two Lands.
The unification and the beginning of the First Dynasty mark the beginning of Egyptian civilization, as opposed to prehistory. Civilization means more complex ways of doing things. No longer were the dead shoveled directly into the sand. Graves were lined with wood, brick, and stone; bodies were wrapped in cloth or enclosed in coffins. This care defeated one of the ends for which it was designed. Stone and wood shut out air and sand. Protected bodies decayed.
Attempts at mummification go back a long way in Egypt, possibly further back than was once believed. The remains of bodies found at Hierakonpolis, one of the capitals of predynastic Egypt, show that some were wrapped and padded and that resin had been applied to the bandages. By the time of the Second Dynasty, more complicated attempts at preserving the body were being made. At Sakkara, James Quibell found the remains of a woman who had been carefully prepared for the grave. The body lay on its side in a flexed position, knees bent. (The extended position, more convenient for mummy wrapping, did not come into general use until later.) Within the elaborate wrappings of this mummy was a mass of corroded linen whose condition suggested that a material such as salt or natron had been applied to the surface of the body. The process did not work; only bones were left. But this example proves that a beginning had been made.
A few centuries later we are in the Pyramid Age, the time of the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties. It is a period of fantastic achievement in many areas, symbolized by the immense mass of the Great Pyramid. Mummification had not made the same strides as had tomb building, but the diligent embalmers had developed a new process which compensated, to some extent, for their inability to preserve the physical body. The corpse was treated with resin and wrapped in layer upon layer of linen bandages. While the outermost layer of bandage was still wet and sticky with resin, it was molded into the form of the body it covered, and the resin-soaked cloth set, forming a shell, or carapace, of stony hardness. The modeling was so exact that fine details of anatomy and expression are preserved. On one mummy, found at Medum by Petrie, the owner’s neat mustache was reproduced in the linen, and the sexual organs were modeled with such care that we can tell that circumcision was practiced at that time. This mummy lay in the extended position, which was beginning to be the normal one. Its body cavity was packed with linen, and the head rattled when it was shaken (to such extremes does a passion for truth lead archaeologists!), probably with bits of desiccated brain. At this period the brain was not removed, though the abdominal organs were.
Mummification gradually improved during the succeeding dynasties. By the Middle Kingdom the technique of modeling the surface of the body in plaster or linen had been abandoned. The body was eviscerated and treated with resin or gum; linen was used to fill the abdominal cavity. Sometimes sawdust was used for filling instead of linen. The brain was not removed.
The classic style of mummification did not appear until the New Kingdom. A new advance had been made—the removal of the brain by means of an instrument which was inserted through the nostril and up, piercing the ethmoid bone, into the skull. The organs were removed from the abdominal cavity; the chest cavity was entered through an incision in the diaphragm, and all its contents were removed, with the exception of the heart.
The heart was the seat not of romantic yearnings but of thought and memory, so we can see why it might be left in place. The other organs, with the exception of the kidneys, which were sometimes left in the body, were treated separately and then placed in four canopic jars.
This method is described by Herodotus, whom I do not intend to quote. For an Egyptologist the value of Herodotus rests almost entirely in the joy of his delightful prose. He was sometimes right but just as often wrong, and his statements cannot be accepted without confirmation. He does, however, describe mummification fairly accurately, mentioning three different types. His first, and most expensive, method is the one just described. Methods two and three involve injecting cedar oil to dissolve the abdominal organs and cleaning out the intestines with a purge. I am informed by Dr. Salima Ikram, a top expert on mummies in general and animal mummies in particular, that the second method actually works if an oleo-resin resembling turpentine is used, so Herodotus was right about this. He also scores on the most important point of all. So far we have only mentioned the preliminaries of mummification; the all-important desiccating agent has yet to be discussed. Herodotus correctly identified the agent.
In the past there was some disagreement about this vital substance, but recent experiments have pretty well settled the argument. If we wanted to duplicate an Egyptian mummy—and it appears that some of us do!—we could.
The experts did not argue about what substance was used, but about how it was used. The substance is natron, a kind of salt whose dehydrating properties are very high. It is found in quantity in Egypt, particularly in the Wadi Natrun, one of the oases. There is no doubt that it was used in mummification; it has been chemically identified on many mummies and in canopic jars from as early as the Fourth Dynasty.
Herodotus says that the cadavers were placed in natron for a period of seventy days. Until recent times it was assumed that the natron was used in solution; so we had the novelist’s gruesome version of an Egyptian embalmer’s shop, with corpses floating in their salty baths. A thoughtful reader, however, might have found himself wondering. Baths? The aim was dehydration, wasn’t it? Why add more water?
Herodotus used to be quoted as the authority for the natron baths, but here the interpreters, not the Greek, may be off the track. The word he uses is the word used to describe the salting of fish, which may be soaked, certainly, but which are often, in Egypt at least, preserved with dry salt.
One way of solving the problem was to try both wet and dry natron on tissue and see what would happen. This was done by Edward Lucas, the chemist who worked on the Tutankhamon objects, and the author of a definitive book on Egyptian materials. Another recent experimenter was A. T. Sandison of the Department of Pathology of the University of Glasgow. Neither man actually tried their experiments on a human body. Lucas used chickens and pigeons, and Sandison used human toes. Both experimenters agree on the essential points: that it took an extremely high concentration of natron in the liquid state to preserve tissue, and that the results did not resemble Egyptian mummies; but that dry natron did produce specimens resembling Egyptian mummies. Dry natron seems to be the answer. The process might be recommended to modern morticians, if preservation is what they want. Some of the Egyptian specimens have lasted quite nicely for over three thousand years, with the help of the admirable Egyptian climate.
The most interesting modern study of the matter took place a few years ago when an inquiring scholar named Bob Brier decided to mummify somebody. Brier cheerfully admits to having been fascinated by mummies since childhood, but his argument for carrying out the procedure was that we couldn’t really know how the Egyptians did it until we tried it ourselves. It took him some time to convince a medical school that his proposition was a legitimate variety of research. Having finally obtained permission, and a cadaver, Brier and Ronald Wade, of the University of Mary land Medical Center, got to work. They used replicas of ancient embalming tools and the same preservatives the Egyptians employed, following procedures described and depicted in ancient times. In general, these worked just fine. The one major difference was in the removal of the brain. (Note to the squeamish: skip to the end of the paragraph.) Pulling out bits of it through the nose, using a hooked instrument, didn’t really do a neat job. Brier found that using a kind of whisk and stirring the contents of the skull as one might beat eggs (I told you to stop reading) reduced the brain to a semiliquid, which could be poured out if the body was turned upside down. The cavity was then swabbed out, leaving it nice and clean.
The organs removed from the body were placed in canopic jars, and the body was then covered with dry natron, which Brier had brought back from the Wadi Natrun in Egypt. Within thirty-five days the corpse had lost eighty pounds in body weight, all of it water. Once it was properly dried the body was wrapped in Egyptian style. The remains were treated with respect and reverence—at least as much as a modern mortician would have given them—and Brier made sure that the proper amulets were enclosed in the wrappings and that the proper prayers and spells were written on the bandages. The anonymous individual who donated his body to science may be surprised when he wakes up to find himself sitting in the boat of Re. Personally, I wouldn’t mind too much, considering some of the alternatives.
The “classic” method of embalming continued with minor changes for hundreds of years. It was quite a successful method; some of the mummies of this period, particularly those of Yuya and Seti I, are excellently preserved. Although the morticians could in many cases stave off the dangers of physical dissolution, there was one danger that threatened the mummy which they could not avert. Tomb robbers not only stole the goods buried in the tomb but often dismembered, mutilated, or burned the mummies themselves. During the Twenty-First Dynasty the situation got so bad that the pious priestly rulers of Thebes felt it necessary to restore and rebury the battered bodies of the ancient kings. The royal embalmers who picked up the pieces—quite literally, in some cases—had ample opportunity to view the results of the techniques they and their predecessors had practiced, and they may have decided that those results were not entirely satisfactory. Tissue was certainly preserved, but the mummies did not look lifelike. The skin was wrinkled and shrunken, the cheeks hollow, the flesh sunken.
Physicians have adopted Aesculapius as their patron; perhaps morticians, who are always seeking to improve their methods, ought to adopt one of these Twenty-First Dynasty embalmers. They were not disheartened; they were stimulated to do bigger and better things. But the techniques they adopted were rather peculiar.
This period is considered, by those who know, to be the height of mummification techniques. We ought to pause to consider the methods in some detail. There is no use warning off the squeamish, as I did before describing a modern mummification. What follows will be no worse than what has come before.
The undertaker of the Twenty-First Dynasty received his patient in a workshop which was not a permanent building but a temporary booth erected for the purpose. The body was laid out on a wooden table or platform. An incision was made in the left flank, and all the internal organs except the heart, and perhaps the kidneys, were removed. The brain was extracted, and then the entire body was covered with dry natron and allowed to remain in it for a period which was no longer than seventy days. This is the length of time assigned to the entire procedure by various texts; probably a good portion of the total was taken up by the bandaging and other parts of the process.
The organs removed from the body were also preserved in pots containing natron. At the end of the designated period the body emerged dry and desiccated, with loosened skin. It was at this point that the Twenty-First Dynasty embalmer departed from the practices of his predecessors and rose to heights of creative power. (Or, as Winlock puts it, he resorted to an expedient of somewhat doubtful taste.) He stuffed the body.
The abdominal cavity had always been stuffed, but this was different. Through slits made in the skin, the mummy was padded out with sawdust, salt, ashes, and various other substances, rammed in between skin and muscle until the desiccated form took on a shape resembling that which it had had in life—or perhaps any form that appealed to the undertaker.
After the body was stuffed, it was painted. The face was adorned with cosmetics, the lips rouged, artificial eyebrows gummed into place. If the natural hair was thinning it was eked out by false hair elaborately waved and curled. As a final touch, false eyes were inserted; they were of black-and-white stone, or of linen with painted pupils, or, in some cases, onions.
The body itself being now prepared, the organs, which had been carefully preserved, were wrapped into seven packages, which were replaced in the body cavity along with small wax figures of four guardian genii of the dead. The incision was closed with a plug of paste or linen, or covered by a plate inscribed with magical figures.
The mummy was ready for wrapping. It was laid on wooden blocks for easier manipulation (modern archaeologists, when unwrapping mummies, sometimes use saw horses), and a pile of old sheets, shirts, and shawls was placed close at hand to be torn into strips of varying width as they were needed—narrow ones for fingers, wide ones for the torso. Before the first bandages were applied the amulets and ornaments of major importance were placed around the throat or wrist or on the forehead. The fingers and toes were wrapped separately, with very narrow bandages; gloves or finger coverings of silver or gold, if the mummy was that of a royal personage, might go on the fingers first. Sandals have been found on the feet.
Bandaging a mummy took hundreds of yards of linen. It must have been a drain on the family linen closet. Perhaps the living saved old sheets and shawls toward the day of death, and extra supplies might be bought from temple ware houses or from thrifty individuals who had some to spare. We know, from the state of wear of much of the linen and from the worn, washed-out laundry marks, that most of the material was not made specifically for mummy wrappings. The marks weren’t really laundry marks, of course, but they are reminiscent of ours, being little scribbles in one corner which give the name of the owner or the ware house to which the linen belonged. One Eleventh Dynasty mummy used 375 square meters of linen in its bandaging; the coffin was filled with extra sheets, and these, with the palls used in the funeral procession, brought the total linen required to the staggering sum of 845 square meters.
After the first layer of bandages was applied other amulets might be placed on the body. Then came more bandages, in a prescribed order—first wound spirally around the body, then a sheet covering the whole form, then more spiral bandages. At one point the head was fixed in position by a strip of linen around the face and neck. The arms were fastened to the thighs, and the legs were bound together. Twice during the wrapping process the bandages were covered with warm, melted resin. This substance, which has been erroneously called “bitumen,” or “pitch,” sometimes had a deleterious effect. Tutankhamon’s mummy had been stuck to the coffin by the resin poured over it, which had hardened into a stony mass. Even more destructive was the spontaneous combustion brought about by the decomposition of the unguents, which carbonized the linen wrappings and reduced the flesh to a cracked and brittle state.
Finally the mummy was formed by the layers of bandaging into a rigid columnar shape. The final sheet was then applied. Unlike the other bandages, it was made especially for the trade, being a sheet of coarse linen with a figure of Osiris drawn on its surface. This was covered by a piece of linen stitched up the back, and then a set of tapes was applied over the whole form. The mummy was now ready to be delivered to the family. The embalmers were through with him—almost.
Sometimes archaeologists have found deposits which seemed, at first glance, to be refuse—pots, some empty and some filled with rags, stained bits of linen, miscellaneous implements, bags of natron (used), and other odds and ends. We sometimes bury garbage, but the Egyptians were not so fastidious. It does not take much imagination to identify this particular trash as the residue of mummification and of the final funerary feast. None of it could be discarded; having been connected with the dead man, it partook to some extent of his essence, so it had to be given some sort of burial. Or, as Winlock cynically suggests, if a man wanted to be sure that all of him got into sacred ground, he would have to insist that even the sweepings of the embalmer’s floor be gathered up.
There was good reason for such care. Some of the embalmers, certainly, were men of integrity. But in a number of cases posterity has caught them out, although their contemporaries were deceived. Even in carefully prepared mummies they sometimes slipped, letting bits and pieces of their equipment, or assorted small animals, be wrapped into a second or third layer of bandages. What difference did it make? The relatives of the dead man weren’t going to unwrap him, and nothing essential had been left out.
More serious were cases like that of the woman whose inner workings had been lost or misplaced while the body was being mummified. The embalmer finally made up a set of organs out of a coil of rope and a bit of cowskin and some rags, bundled them up with the four sacred figures, and put them inside the lady. One would like to think that she encountered him later, in the hereafter, and told him what she thought of him.
The nastiest of all accusations, worse than carelessness or laziness, can also be levied against some ancient embalmers. The word is ghouls—robbers of the dead. Winlock describes one case which is an excellent example of archaeological detection—a process of reasoning which puts the blame for the robbery squarely and unmistakably on the shoulders of the men who had been paid to guard the mummy.
The mummies in question were those of two women. When Winlock first found them, they were lying just as they had been placed in the grave: tapes, outer sheet, and Osiris sheet were in place. But as the archaeologist unwrapped the bodies more and more confusion among the chest bandages became apparent. At last the bandages were off, down to the first layer of resin which had been applied; and there, in the hardened gum, was the imprint of the metal hawks which had once covered the ladies’ chests. The hawks were gone. Around the torn bandages on the chests were fingerprints made by hands sticky with resin. The left hand of one woman had been laid bare in a search for finger rings. Winlock concludes somberly, “The mummies had been rifled before they were even completely wrapped; and that must have taken place in the undertaker’s own establishment.”
Despite such cases of corruption and carelessness, the mummies of this period probably represent the height of Egyptian skill in embalming. From this point on the technique degenerated and the carelessness increased. Some Ptolemaic mummies are very dark and hard and shiny, presumably from the application of resinous material directly to the skin. Poorly preserved mummies were kept intact by a long stick thrust through the body. Others can hardly be called mummies; they are only loose bones flung higgledy-piggledy into a framework of palm fibers bandaged into the shape of a body. As the embalmers’ skill decreased, the wrappings became very elaborate; the bandaging sometimes looks like woven basketry. The elaboration of bandaging reached its peak during the Roman period, and the mummies were at their lowest point. They were so thickly coated with resin that the material formed a cast all around the body, and sometimes we cannot even tell whether evisceration was carried out. The process had made a complete circle, back to the technique used in the earliest mummies—a cast or carapace covering the entire body.
Mummies, it may be thought, are not only an unpleasant topic of conversation, but an even more unpleasant object of research. This attitude stems not solely from the squeamishness of our effete culture, it is a reflection of attitudes toward the dead which are a lot older than modern man. The other objects of an Egyptologist’s study need no justification, but perhaps we ought to explain his interest in what may strike some people as a nasty business.
One reason for the study of mummification ought to be immediately obvious to any reader with archaeological know-how. The changes in embalming technique form a chronological sequence which can be pinned down by absolute dates. This means that otherwise undated mummies, and the contexts in which they are found, can sometimes be dated by means of this sequence, which was worked out so skillfully by men like Smith and Dawson.
The human remains found in some of the Old Kingdom pyramids illustrate how the sequence can be applied. In 1837 Colonel Richard Vyse, an English explorer, was the first man in modern times to penetrate the interior of the third Giza pyramid, built by Menkaure. Vyse was several thousand years too late to find an undisturbed burial, but he did discover the king’s sarcophagus and, in an upper chamber, scraps from a wooden coffin and from a mummy. It was only reasonable to suppose that the mummy fragments were the remains of the pyramid builder.
Another supposed mummy of the Pyramid Age was found in the tomb of King Mernere, near Cairo. The remains were found in 1881, more than four thousand years after Mernere had been sealed inside his pyramid.
But according to Smith’s analysis of embalming techniques, the Mernere mummy is an Eighteenth Dynasty effort, coming from a period about a thousand years later than the pyramid in which it was found. The Mycerinus mummy is also later in date. Both were what archaeologists call “intrusive” burials—burials which made use of an already prepared tomb. Thus, the study of mummification can correct a date based on misleading circumstances of discovery. It can even correct a date based on what would seem to be unarguable evidence—an inscription naming the mummy.
Most of the royal mummies come from two caches discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. The kings, queens, and other individuals (a few were nonroyal) in these collections had been gathered together by priests of the Twenty-First Dynasty, after the original tombs had been robbed and the mummies violated—so grievously in some cases that the priests had to do a sort of ghoulish jigsaw puzzle with the pieces. Some mummies had been rewrapped; few were in their original coffins. The priests dutifully relabeled them, and when Maspero and Smith examined the bodies they accepted these identifications. There was only so much Smith, the anatomist, could do with these sad remains. X-ray techniques were crude, and since one can only tell the age of a body by the bones, Smith couldn’t get at this information without defleshing the mummies.
So the situation remained until the 1970s, at which time a team of Egyptologists and physicians asked permission to reexamine all the royal mummies using more advanced X-ray techniques. They did it; and the results were extremely disconcerting. You see, the physical evidence didn’t agree with the historical evidence. To put it in its most elementary form, a king who ruled for at least thirty-nine years and married a wife when he came to the throne had to be at least forty at death—probably older. If the mummy labeled with his name is that of a man in his early thirties, there is a problem.
Egyptologists scrambled to explain the discrepancies. There are only three possibilities: one, the anthropologists are wrong; two, the historians are wrong; three, the labels on the mummies and coffins are wrong. I favor the third explanation. So do a good many scholars, but trying to figure out who is really who has led to what Dennis Forbes, editor of Kmt, has called “Mummy Musical Chairs.” According to one revision, the mummy labeled Seti II is really Thutmose II. The one labeled Thutmose II becomes Thutmose I. The former Thutmose I is an unknown earlier Thutmosid. The mummy accepted as that of Amenhotep II, though it was found in his tomb, in his sarcophagus, with his name on it, isn’t Amenhotep II after all. He’s really Thutmose IV.
Confused? So am I. Adding to the confusion is a methodology called cranio-facial morphology. According to the proponents of this procedure, the reason why Amenhotep II isn’t Amenhotep II is that he can’t be the son of the Thutmose III mummy (assuming that Thutmose III is really Thutmose III) because the measurements of skull and facial bones don’t jibe. The reader has probably realized that this methodology strikes me as dubious in the extreme. Despite the technical terms involved, what it essentially comes down to is that two people can’t be related because they don’t look alike. No doubt I am being unfair, but the maternal contribution is never taken into account, since we don’t have the mummies of the mothers.
I had better stop talking about it.
However, this may be an appropriate time to discuss modern scientific methods of examining mummies. One of the most useful is the CAT scan, which produces an extremely detailed and accurate model of the body without invading it physically. Medical endoscopy and complicated techniques of rehydrating dried-out ancient tissue have produced interesting results. One of the specialists in these techniques is Dr. Rosalie David of the University of Manchester, whose books will tell you all you want to know about them. But the letters that get some Egyptologists all a-twitter are DNA.
The discovery of the genetic code is surely one of the most astonishing scientific breakthroughs of all time. It is hard to simplify such a complex concept, especially when (as is the case with me) one doesn’t really understand it. But I’ll give it my best shot. These long strings of beadlike genes define each individual, determining gender, physical attributes, genetic diseases, and God knows what else. They are made up of contributions from both parents, so that matching the codes of a child and his parents, or more distant ancestors, can determine relationships. Mitrochondrial DNA, as opposed to the other variety, is passed on only in the female line. A boy-child has his mother’s mitrochondrial DNA, but he can’t pass it on to his children.
Since some of the most hotly debated arguments in Egyptology hinge on who was related to whom, scholars pounced on this breakthrough with shouts of delight. At last, they crowed, we can determine who the royal mummies really were! We will pry poor Tutankhamon out of his coffin again, scrape off a bit of him, and find out once and for all whether his DNA matches that of various other mummies we think may be his kin.
It’s a pity that it won’t work. Again I am out of my depth here, but as I understand it, DNA deteriorates with time and other factors. With ancient remains it may not be possible to get enough of the stuff to make a definitive match. If we keep picking pieces off various mummies—teeth are particularly good—there won’t be much left of them. So far I remain unconvinced by most of the DNA matches claimed by modern researchers.
Anyhow, it’s much more entertaining to go on arguing, using the old methods.
One of the questionable mummies is the one labeled Amenhotep III; actually, there are several names on the label. This king dates from the Eighteenth Dynasty; he was the father of Akhenaton and—I think—the grandfather of Tutankhamon. This mummy had been stuffed; packing had been introduced under the skin. Now this process, as we have seen, was not begun until the Twenty-First Dynasty, some four hundred years after the age of Amenhotep III. When Elliot Smith examined the mummy he was unhappy about the attribution of it to an Eighteenth Dynasty king; he suggested, very tentatively, that the unique technique might be one of the heresies of the Amarna Period, which was generally iconoclastic. But we now have other mummies dating from about the same period, and they show no signs of stuffing. The mummies of Yuya and of Tutankhamon were prepared in the traditional Eighteenth Dynasty manner. We cannot firmly deny that this mummy is that of Amenhotep III on typological evidence; the trouble with a noninclusive series is that a new example may turn up at any time to upset the arrangement. But it is clear that this particular mummy should be labeled with a big question mark.
Tutankhamon’s mummy furnishes other examples of the useful application of the study of embalming. Derry’s investigation of the mummy turned up one interesting and curious fact which had to do with the skull measurements.
Tutankhamon’s skull was unusually broad, as well as flat-topped (platycephalic), with a markedly projecting occipital area. The general shape of the head was strikingly like that of another skull—the one found in the peculiar little tomb KV 55, which was originally named “the Tomb of Queen Tiyi.” Both Derry and Smith, who examined the latter skull, commented independently on the unusual breadth and flatness of the two specimens. A later investigator, R. G. Harrison, a professor of anatomy, confirmed the resemblance and praised Derry for the accuracy of his observations.
There seems to be no doubt that the owners of the skulls were related by blood, and this is a point of great importance. The most likely candidate for the occupant of tomb 55 is Smenkhkare, the son-in-law and co-regent of Akhenaton. If he and Tutankhamon shared that distinctive skull shape, they were probably brothers. It is barely possibly that Smenkhkare might have fathered Tutankhamon, though the likelihood is that they were too close in age to be father and son.
This is another useful fact to be learned from the study of mummies—the approximate age of the deceased. For example, Tutankhamon’s age at death was somewhere in the neighborhood of eighteen years. Egyptian records give the number of years he reigned, so from the physical data we can deduce how old he was when he came to the throne. Smenkhkare—if the questionable skeleton is indeed his—was probably around twenty when he died. This would make him seventeen years old when he became king. Tutankhamon succeeded him; so if the two were brothers, Tutankhamon was the younger brother.
If you think there are a lot of “ifs” in that paragraph, just wait. If Tutankhamon was a king’s son, as one inscription states, then Smenkhkare must have been a king’s son too, for a commoner, what ever his age, would not have preceded a prince of the blood onto the throne. Only two kings qualify for the paternal role. If there was a long co-regency between Akhenaton and his father, then the latter monarch could have lived long enough to father Smenkhkare and Tutankhamon. If there wasn’t a co-regency, the father must have been Akhenaton, because that king reigned for seventeen years and Tutankhamon was only nine when he ascended the throne after Akhenaton’s death.
Well, we seem to be getting off the subject of mummies. We don’t have Akhenaton’s, and even if we did, we couldn’t eliminate all the ifs. A close resemblance between his remains and those of Smenkhkare and Tutankhamon would not prove he was their father; he might equally well be their half-brother. But we would be able to find out how old Akhenaton was when he died, and skeletal remains would settle, once and for all, the old argument as to whether Akhenaton suffered from a pathological condition severe enough to produce the deformities seen in some of his statues and reliefs.
Those of us who are interested in Egyptology engage in this sort of guesswork all the time; it is going to be a blow to us if Akhenaton’s mummy ever does turn up, because we enjoy our fantasies immensely, particularly when we label them “theories” and get into exciting arguments with other archaeologists.
We could go on listing the benefits to be derived from the study of mummies—the manner of death, the types of diseases prevalent, the state of medical treatment, styles of hairdressing and makeup, not to mention the all-important question of mortuary beliefs. Before I conclude our study of Egyptian mummies—which may have seemed, to the squeamish reader, inordinately long—I want to touch on one last value. It is the value of simple human interest. These poor scraps of mortality were once people; and if we have an ounce of imagination we cannot help wondering when we see them in the unaesthetic but actual flesh, what they were like. How did they live—and how did they die?
Most of the time the last question is impossible to answer. The vicera of almost all mummies were removed and many specimens were damaged by time or tomb robbers. Still, certain of the mummies have a story to tell. The two little mummies of the premature babies found in Tutankhamon’s tomb suggest not only a father’s disappointed hopes but the fall of a dynasty. (The suggestion that these fetuses represent an otherwise unattested religious ritual is extremely far-fetched.)
Detective story addicts who study the mummies mentioned in a book like Smith and Dawson’s may be struck, as I was, by the apparent rarity of violent death. The great exception is the terrible mummy of King Sekenenre, who met an extremely violent end at the time of the Wars of Liberation, when the Theban rulers were beginning to object to the domination of the Hyksos invaders who had ruled part of Egypt. The wounds of ax and club can still be seen on the skull, and the expression on the face suggests that Sekenenre died painfully. Our fancy cannot lead us into overdramatizing Sekenenre’s end; assassinated or struck down in battle, this man’s death was dramatic.
Since I have a basically evil mind, I suspect that some other Egyptian kings did not die of old age. The histories of various nations, including those of the “enlightened” Western world, indicate that kingship was not the safest of all possible jobs. The royal mummies might not tell the complete story. Some were so badly battered that it is hard to tell whether they once showed signs of a violent attack; and poison, to name only one popular method of assassination, would not leave traces on the bones. It has been suggested that Tutankhamon was a victim of assassination, on the basis of a suspicious-looking hole in his skull. The most recent examination found no evidence of a blow to the head, or even a hole. Tutankhamon did suffer a serious injury to his leg, which might have resulted in infection and death. Not murder, but accident, possibly resulting from his being thrown from his rapidly moving chariot. Another dramatic plot gone west….
Smith and Dawson cite a case of violent death in their classic book and reconstruct a reasonable, and very pitiful, story to explain it. The mummy was that of a girl about sixteen years old. It had not been eviscerated, so the doctors could tell that she was six months pregnant. The probable cause of death was a fractured skull, and both forearms had been broken before death. Drawing on parallel cases from modern times, Smith suggested that the girl was unmarried and that when her condition was discovered by her family, her male relatives proceeded to wipe out the stain on their honor. When she flung up her hands to ward off their blows her wrists were broken, and then the murderers proceeded to beat her to death. It makes a plausible story, although we must state, in all fairness to the ancient Egyptians, that we have no reason to suppose that they had stupid hangups about virginity.
The most mysteriously suggestive of all the mummies known to me was the body of a person who is still unidentified. It was found in 1872 when some lucky peasants stumbled upon a thieves’ paradise. In a hidden cache in the cliffs near Thebes lay the bodies of the greatest kings and queens of Egypt, gathered from their desecrated tombs and secretly reburied, for safety, by the rulers of the Twenty-First Dynasty. For some time the happy tomb robbers, worthy descendants of fore-bears who had practiced the profession for generations, kept the secret of the discovery while marketing objects from their find, but they were eventually caught by the shrewd detective work of the Department of Antiquities, then headed by Gaston Maspero. The cache was opened and the royal mummies taken to the Cairo Museum, where they were examined by experts.
Among the mummies of the bluebloods was one which Maspero ignored at first. Enclosed in a plain white coffin, without name or inscriptions, it seemed hardly worthy of notice, except for the fact that it was “wrapped in a sheepskin of white wool”—an unusual feature. With the change in temperature and humidity, however, the mummy was adversely affected, and eventually it forced itself upon Maspero’s attention. He decided it had better be unwrapped at once. At first everything appeared to be normal; within the sheepskin the mummy was wrapped in typical Eighteenth Dynasty style. But as the unwrapping proceeded, the horrified archaeologists realized that this mummy, the body of a young man about five feet ten inches tall, was unlike any other they had seen. The body had never been eviscerated; it was preserved solely by dry natron which had been skillfully distributed on the surface of the body. Everyone who was present at the unwrapping seems to have been powerfully affected by the sight of the face; and, according to Maspero, all assumed immediately that death was the result of a convulsant poison. Maspero even suggested that the wrapping had been begun before life was completely extinct. (This notion has inspired several modern horror novelists and film-makers.)
It comes as something of an anticlimax to realize, on sober reflection, that perhaps Maspero and his examining physician, Dr. Fouquet, let themselves be carried away just a bit. Of course, there is no way of telling how this miserable wretch died. The faces and bodies of a number of mummies are distorted because of belated or careless handling by the embalmers. When mummy expert Bob Brier recently examined the Unknown Man, he found that the scrap of sheepskin was not large enough to have wrapped the body. Yet the circumstances—the plain unmarked coffin, the sheepskin itself, and the fact, unique among all other mummies in the cache, that the body was not disemboweled—all this does justify a question as to how the man died. There is a mystery, even if it is not a murder mystery. We cannot even put up a reasonable guess as to who the man was. He must have been of high rank or he would not have been included in the cache, and yet the cavalier treatment of the body suggests that he may have been guilty of some crime. Brier and others have theorized that the man may have been a son of Ramses III who conspired to take the throne from his older brother and was caught and condemned; but until now his fate and his identity remain a mystery that not even Sherlock Holmes could unravel.
Of all the qualifications necessary for immortality, a physical simulacrum of the deceased was one of the most important. If we had no other evidence of this belief, the long centuries of scrupulous attention lavished on the corpse would be evidence enough. Admittedly, mummification is a curious custom; and it is a bit disconcerting to travel three thousand years into the past and find ourselves staring at a distorted, but recognizable, version of recent American funerary customs. Although embalming did not disappear entirely until Moslem times in Egypt, some of the early followers of Christ saw the impropriety which seems to elude certain American Christians. St. Anthony, son of a noble Egyptian family, addressed the faithful followers who surrounded him just before his death in these words:
Permit no man to take my body and carry it into Egypt, lest, according to the custom which they have, they embalm me and lay me up in their houses, for it was to avoid this that I came into the desert…. Dig a grave then…and hide my body under the earth…until the Resurrection of the dead, when I shall receive this body without corruption.