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Mummies and Mummification

In order to preserve the body for eternal life it was embalmed and wrapped in linen sheets and/or bandages - mummified. Some sort of mummification is already attested in the Predynastic Period and Old Kingdom. However, the techniques of embalming were only fully developed in the New Kingdom. Mummification was still practised in the Roman and Byzantine periods. Especially in the Roman period it seems to have amounted to a kind of 'industry': the number of mummified bodies is very high and it seems that it was affordable for a great number of people, not only in the upper classes. The term mummy derives from the Persian or Arabic word 'mumia' which means 'pitch' or 'bitumen'.

The most important phase in mummification was the desiccation of the body: to achieve this, it was placed for many days - Herodotus speaks of 70 days - into natron, a naturally occurring cleansing salt. For the same reason the soft inner parts and the brain were removed. There are no detailed ancient Egyptian records of mummification procedures; our knowledge of the practice depends on observations from surviving examples.

Despite intense public and specialist interest, it remains difficult to write a history of mummification, because western analysts persist in perceiving all mummies as homogeneous - there are remarkably few analysts sensitive to the precise historical space and time occupied by each individual mummified body, and distinguishing between earlier and later remains. The individuals are converted from 'mummified bodies' (human beings who lived in one place and time) into 'mummies' - they are effectively dehumanised.

Egyptian mummies only survive because of the dry desert climate. There were limits to the success of the embalmers, even in periods when their art reached its peak. For example, bodies found in the wet Delta survive in skeletal condition, never as 'full' mummies, although at least some of them presumably had the same treatment as the mummies found in the deserts of Upper Egypt.

Old Kingdom
Middle Kingdom
New Kingdom
Third Intermediate Period
Late Period - Christian Period
UC 72746

David 2000 (introduction)


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