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Egyptian Mummification

Recent Findings Based on CT Scan Data from Egyptian Mummies (Ptolemaic Period)

By Jonathan Elias, Ph.D., Director, Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium

Treatment of the Heart in Egyptian Mummification

The term “mummy” in its Egyptian context refers to a corpse which has been artificially embalmed according to a set of procedures and rituals handed down since the earliest periods of Egyptian history. An Egyptian mummy (in contrast to other kinds of mummy) was produced through the removal of all internal viscera, except for the heart. CT examination of Early Ptolemaic mummies (305-200 BC) indicates that Egyptian embalmers made concerted efforts to avoid cardiac tissue in the course of removing the other organs. Nevertheless, the complexity of doing the various organ extractions (generally via a small incision in the lower left flank of the abdominal wall) resulted in uneven success in preserving the heart itself. In some mummies, only remnants of the pericardium and nearby bronchus are in place; in others, CT scans reveal that much of the chambered structure of the heart has been left intact, although it is reduced in size as a result of the drying process which formed the preliminary phase of the Egyptian mummification method.

Fig. 1 Mummy of Pahat (Ptolemaic Period/Akhmim) showing preserved cardiac tissue.

Brain Removal in Egyptian Mummification (Excerebration)
To mummify properly, brain tissue was nearly always removed, and this was done by inserting hooked rods (often of bronze, 25.0-30.0 cm long) into the nasal passages, perforating the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone to provide an exit for brain tissue. There appears to have been a preference for insertion of excerebration tools into the right nostril, but left nostril placement is also seen in CT scans of Egyptian mummies. It is currently thought that the brain was allowed to decompose to a semi-liquid state prior to its evacuation from the cranium. The head and neck were probably strongly manipulated by the embalmers to speed this process. Dissociation of the cervical vertebrae when it occurs is sometimes seen as indicating damage from the brain removal process, but the patterns vary widely and need to be examined carefully. Fragmentation of the base of the skull is possibly the most reliable evidence of excerebration-related damage.

Fig. 2 Padi-heru (Ptolemaic Period/Akhmim) showing excerebration tool in right eye socket

Desiccation and Use of Unguents in Egyptian Mummification
Herodotus, writing in the latter half of the 5th century BC tells us (The Histories, Book II, chapter 86) that the entire process of mummification lasted for seventy days, and modern research confirms this. While removal of the organs from thorax and abdomen occurred within the first few days of the process, at least thirty-five to forty days were required to properly dry (desiccate) the body inside and out by means of natron salts (a mixture of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and other chemicals). Herodotus describes the natron as if embalmers applied it in a liquid state, but archaeological remains show it to have been packaged in small linen bags; it is believed that these bags were inserted inside the thoracic and abdominal cavities and piled up around the body during a desiccation period which lasted about thirty-five to forty days. While the body was being dried out, it is also evident that the vital organs that had been removed from the corpse were desiccated, coated in resinous unguents and then wrapped up in linen. These wrapped organ tissues are known as "visceral packets".

Fig. 3 Visceral packets imaged within the abdomen of Shep-en-min (Ptolemaic Period/Akhmim)

Canopic Jars and Visceral Packets in Egyptian Mummification
In the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, preserved viscera (vital organs) were placed within so-called Canopic jars which had lids in the form of protective deities known as the Four Sons of Horus (the human Imsety [for the liver], jackal Duamutef [for the stomach], baboon Hapy [for the lungs] and falcon Qebehsenuef [for the intestines]). After 650 BC, the use of Canopic jars for organ storage declined in frequency; the jars were increasingly reduced to “statues of themselves” having a symbolic rather than a containing function. Instead, the various organs were coated in resin, and rolled up within linen packets. These “visceral packets” become a common feature of mummies during the Saite Period (665-525 BC) and the succeeding Late Period (525 – 305 BC) and Ptolemaic era (305 – 30 BC). During the first hundred years of the Ptolemaic era proper the visceral packets found within mummies are generally cylindrical and vary in size. Those found in the pelvic cavity tend to be small (around 9.0-10.0 cm long). Those found in the thoracic cavity fall into two size classes (one ranges from 15.0 – 20.0 cm long; the other is 25.0-30.0 cm long). Research on the adhesive and aromatic substances used in mummification is progressing steadily. While Herodotus is certainly correct when he mentions frankincense and myrrh in connection with mummification, other materials were also used, including bees wax, and bitumen (a semi-solid mineral asphaltic tar available anciently as seepages from the Dead Sea). The Arabic term for “bitumen” is in fact the origin of the term “mummy” (Arabic: mumiye). Bitumen appears to have been prevalent in the very latest periods of embalming science. Botanical resins derived from cedar and pistachio species were also used, and were favored as insecticidal agents (poured into body cavities and applied to the skin surface) through most of the time periods in which mummies were produced. Semi -solid rosins derived from the same species are sometimes also found in the interior cavities of Ptolemaic mummies, but the specific conditions of rosin-use remain to be determined. Mummies were wrapped in linen following desiccation and application of resin. In Ptolemaic times the limbs were separately wrapped, prior to the creation of a generalized mummy bundle, by repeated layering of transverse bandages. The linen used in wrapping appears to form distinct layers, with resin adhesives poured on to it at various stages in the wrapping process to tack things down. As many as fifteen layers of pasted bandage have been counted in the Ptolemaic mummies under study. After a final generalized pouring of resin, the embalmers draped a winding sheet or shroud on the body, embellishing it with prefabricated cartonnage plaques and a mummy mask, usually with a gilded face.

Fig. 4 Canopic Jars: Imsety (foreground) and Hapy (rear) Milwaukee Public Museum April 2011

Arm Positions of Egyptian Mummies
Recent CT scans of Egyptian mummies of the Ptolemaic Period shows that in preparation for final wrapping, the arms of mummified persons were frequently crossed in emulation of the pose of Osiris, lord of eternity (this position was in earlier periods reserved for royalty). Interestingly the prevailing style of “arm crossing” is right over left, and it is not unusual to find the left hand on the right shoulder positioned as if clasping, while the right hand remains relaxed and pronate on the left shoulder or against the crook of the arm. This should caution researchers from supposing that a mummy with crossed arms necessarily means that the person is royal. The crossing of the arms of the mummies of non-royals occurs at least as early as the Saite period (664-525 BC, e.g. see Lee and Stenn 1978, radiographs of Harwa in the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago), when it may have been a prerogative of members of the clergy. It was more common at that period to inter mummies with arms uncrossed and descending to the abdomen and resting on the inner aspect of the thighs. This practice persists into the Ptolemaic Period, at which time it is conceivable that younger persons were interred in this way.

Fig. 5 "Crossed Arms" posture in a mummy of the 4th century BC (Akhmim)

List of References

Chan, S., Elias, J., Hysell, M.and Hallowell, M. 2008. Computed Tomographic Examination of a Ptolemaic Period Mummy from the Ancient Egyptian City of Akhmim. Radiographics 28 (7) Nov.,2023-2032.

Cockburn, A. et al. (1975) Autopsy of an Egyptian Mummy. Science 187 (4182), 1155-1160.

Elias, J. and Lupton, C. (2005) The Role of Computed Axial Tomography in the Study of the Mummies of Akhmim, Egypt. In Rabino-Massa, E. (ed.), Proceedings V World Congress on Mummy Studies. Journal of Biological Research, LXXX, N. 1, 34-38.

Elias, J.  2007. Preliminary CT Scan Analysis of an Egyptian Mummy in the Putnam Museum, Davenport, Iowa (Putnam 1/AR 21190) (AMSC-17 Study 1, October).

Germer, R.  1997. Mummies, Life after Death in Ancient Egypt. (Munich and New York: Prestel Verlag).

Harrell J. and Lewan M.  2002. Sources of mummy bitumen in ancient Egypt and Palestine. Archaeometry  44 (May), 285.

Kaup, Y., Baumer U., Koller J., Hedges, R.E.M., Werner H., Hartmann H.-J., Etspüler H. and Weser, U.  1994. Zn2Mg Alkaline Phosphatase in an Early Ptolemeic [sic] Mummy, Zeitschrift für Naturforschung. Abt. C 49, 489-500.

Lee, S. and Stenn, F.  1978. The Characterization of Mummy Bone Ochronotic Pigment . JAMA  240, 2, 136-138.