The art of mummification existed for approximately 3,000 years in ancient Egypt—ultimately ending in the fourth century A.D., when Christianity became more widespread. While trends in the process came and went over time, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the fifth century B.C. that proper mummification could take up to 70 days. LSA’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology houses an Egyptian collection featuring several pieces outlining many of the key steps in the mummification process. A coffin dated to 685-525 B.C., an anonymous child mummy, and mummified animals are among the items on display.
Mummification was a process that ultimately allowed Egyptians to prepare for and come to terms with death. But what exactly did it entail? Experts from the Kelsey Museum provide us with an overview of the procedure, from embalming to entombing.
The internal organs—except for the heart, which was considered the most vital organ—were removed. Most were discarded.
The lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines were embalmed and wrapped in linen. They were then placed in canopic jars, which kept components of the physical body in close proximity to the soul (one part of which was known as the ka). They were believed to be protected by the four sons of the god Horus.
The body was packed with natron, a drying and preserving substance native to Egypt.
Once it was fully dehydrated, the body was wrapped in yards of linen. Good luck charms were usually placed throughout the linen. These charms were intended to help individuals stand in good graces with gods and goddesses, who were expected to ask a series of questions to review a person’s life. Those who “passed” the review would go on to the afterlife, known as the Field of Reeds. Those who didn’t make the cut would be sent to Ammit, the “Devourer of Souls,” a hybrid animal that was part lion, hippopotamus, and crocodile.
The mummy was placed in a coffin—thought to be a house of eternity, providing both physical and symbolic protection as well as identification. Coffins often bore texts with names, titles, and parentage of the deceased as well as religious texts. A coffin on display at the Kelsey Museum, attributed to a man named Djehutymose, bears a “cheat sheet” of sorts— containing spells to help him in the afterlife, including answers to questions that he’d be asked by various gods and goddesses.
Ushabtis were also included in the coffin as well. These small figurines—with picks, hoes and baskets in tow—would complete chores and work on the person’s behalf, since daily life for the dead was thought to be similar to the living. Some mummies have been found to have up to 365 ushabtis—one for each day—as well as more than 30 overseers.
Don’t forget your lunch! Animals were often mummified and included in tombs, along with models of certain animals and food. Other animals were also mummified as offerings to the gods—such as a mummified cat on display at the Kelsey Museum.
The coffin was then sealed and placed in its tomb. The ka was finally prepared for the Field of Reeds, where life was expected to be similar to life on Earth, only better.
Images courtesy of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.