The mummification process continues to be somewhat of a mystery. There were no texts or books left behind to give an insight into the process. Instead, we have relied on few depictions and fragments of papyrus to help understand how the process was completed. More information is gathered through the examination of the mummies themselves and the great Greek historian Herodotus.
It is important to note that the mummification process varied depending on the financial status of the person being mummified and the time period of the mummy. According to Herodotus, there were three methods of mummification that were broken up into classes; wealthy, middle, and poor. The wealthy citizens had the most lavish mummification performed while the middle class had a downgraded version of the wealthy. The poor citizens were done minimally—enough to preserve the body.
The mummification process evolved throughout Ancient Egypt. Early mummification was simple. The body was placed into a pit and the heat from the desert quickly dehydrated moist flesh. This in turn preserved the body. As the Egyptians fine tuned the process they eventually started removing the internal organs such as the brain, intestine, and stomach. These organs quickly decomposed and were placed inside separate jars to avoid extreme damage to the body due to decomposition.
The Process of Mummification
After the death of an Egyptian, the embalmers where called by family members and the body was taken to the ibu (the tent of purification). The ibu, which was located on the west bank of the Nile, is where the body would begin its process of mummification. The first thing done was to wash the body and anoint it with sacred oils. Once cleansed, the body was then taken to the wabet (palace of embalming). There, it is believed according to Herodotus, a large incision was made on the left side of the abdomen. This incision was used for removing vital organs such as the intestines, liver, lungs and stomach. Often times the kidneys were ignored because it was thought they had little importance. Once removed, the organs were wrapped and placed in canopic jars.
Along with the organs, mainly during the late Middle Kingdom or early New Kingdom, the brain was removed. To do this a large hole was punched through the ethmoid bone located just above the nostrils. A hook shaped tool was inserted into this hole and used to liquefy the brain then drained through the nose. Anything left behind was removed with “drugs” according to Herodotus.
After the body had been cleansed and the organs removed it was then ready for the next step—the dehydration process. This process remains a controversial subject due to Herodotus’s choice of words describing it. He used the word “pickle” which led many Egyptologists to believe the body was submerged in a solution of natron salt. The other method, which was tested and proved more logical, called for large amounts of natron salt to be packed around the body dry. Though we’ll never know until a document is unearthed, we can only speculate between the two methods.
After the drying process the body is then washed and all traces of natron are removed. The cadaver is then taken to per nefer (the house of beauty) where it is stuffed and shaped back to its normal size. Many perfumes and oils were rubbed on the body and the open wounds sealed with wax. Over the hot wax, a metal plate decorated with symbols of protection sealed the incision wounds. After the anointing was completed and the wounds sealed, molten resin was added to cover the body. Both men and women would be colored with ochre. The men would be colored red and the women yellow.
The wrapping process lasted fifteen to thirteen days. Family members of the deceased would donate cloth to embalmers and in many cases, special fine cloth with spells written upon them were used. Most of the time, sheets of linen were used as the main wrapping material. This process was done until the body was protected from head to foot in linen. During the wrapping process many amulets were added between layers to ensure a safe passage and protection.
The body was then covered with a death mask made of papyrus or linen and reinforced with plaster. Royal mummies, such as Tutankhamun’s, were made of gold and held precious and semiprecious stones that were inlaid. The mummy was then placed into its coffins and eventually its tomb.