The preserving of corpses by wrapping them in bandages has been a constant source of fascination to us, creating a sense of the sinister and macabre that has seen 'the mummy' appear in several Hollywood horror films. For the ancient Egyptians however, this treatment of the dead was actually spiritually and religiously symbolic.


The Birth of the Mummy

Like the development of the pyramids, the process that we call mummification evolved over time. When the earliest ancient Egyptians buried their dead in small pits or mastabas, the heat and dryness of the sand dehydrated the bodies quickly, creating lifelike and natural 'mummies'.

In these simple tombs corpses often fell prey to wild animals in the desert and so the Egyptians started burying their dead in coffins. However, even when placed in coffins the bodies still decayed quickly.

Over many centuries, the ancient Egyptians developed a method of preserving bodies so they would appear as they did in life. The process included embalming the bodies and wrapping them in strips of linen and so the process of mummification was born.

The Great Pyramid and the Sphinx

The Great Pyramid and the Sphinx

The importance of preservation

So why did the Egyptians what to keep the dead lifelike? The answer is because these people believed that after death their bodies would travel to another world during the day, and at night they would return to their bodies. In order for the person's spirit to live forever, it had to be able to recognize the body it was returning to!

Because it was believed that if a spirit could not recognize its body it would die, the bodies of the dead should be kept in as lifelike a state as possible. As a result a procedure of seven steps was devised to guarantee eternal life for the spirit.

Step One: Purification

First, the body was washed with wine and spices by professional embalmers; it was then rinsed with water from the Nile. After the body had been washed, all of the parts that might decay were removed.

The first organ to be removed was the brain. The embalmers used a long hook to smash the brain and pull it out through the nose! Then they cut open the left side of the body and removed the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines. The heart is not removed because it was believed to be the centre of intelligence and feeling: the dead will need this in the afterlife!

Step Two: Dehydration

The body itself was then stuffed with bundles of a natural salt called natron, which they also used to completely cover the body. It was then placed on a slanted couch so that any fluids that dripped out as the body was drying could be collected and buried along with it.

Any rags used in the dehydration process would also be buried with the body.

Step Three: Organic treatment

While the body was drying, the removed internal organs were also washed and packed in natron, before being wrapped in linen. Earlier mummies were buried alongside their dehydrated organs, which were stored in solid wood or stone jars.

Over many years however the embalming practices changed and the dried internal organs were wrapped in linen and stuffed back into the body. However, jars were still buried with the mummy to symbolically protect the internal organs on their journey to the afterlife.

Step Four: Cleansing

After forty days the body, now completely dry and shrunken, was washed with water from the Nile. Oil and fragrant spices were then added both inside and out to keep the skin soft and elastic.

Step Five: Restoring

The fifth stage was to restore the body to as lifelike state as possible. It was stuffed with dry materials such as sawdust, leaves to fill the cavity and make the preserved corpse regain the shape it had in life.

The fifth stage was to restore the body to as lifelike state as possible. It was stuffed with dry materials such as sawdust, leaves to fill the cavity and make the preserved corpse regain the shape it had in life.

Once the body was stuffed and treated, it could be covered with fine jewellery such as necklaces, rings and bracelets made of gold and gems.

Step Six: Wrapping

The entire body was then covered with shrouds and bound with strips of linen in a complicated procedure and could take as long as a week. The head and neck were wrapped first, followed by the fingers and the toes, then the arms and legs were wrapped separately.

The arms and legs were then tied together, and a papyrus scroll with spells from the Book of the Dead was placed between the wrapped hands. Between each layer of wrapping the embalmers placed amulets to protect the body in its journey through the underworld; a priest also aided this journey this journey by reading out spells while the mummy was being wrapped.

More and more linen strips were wrapped around the body, glued together at every layer by liquid resin. Once this had been done a cloth was wrapped around the entire body with a picture of the god Osiris painted on its surface.

Finally, a large cloth was wrapped around the entire mummy, attached with yet more strips of linen that ran from the top to the bottom of the mummy, as well as around its middle.

Step Seven: Funeral Rites

After the wrapping was finished, the head of the mummy was covered with a portrait mask to make sure that the spirit would recognize it. The masked mummy was then placed in a series of gilded wooden coffins.

At the funeral for the deceased a ritual called the 'Opening of the Mouth' is performed, believed to give the deceased the ability to eat and drink again.

It is only now, after all this that the mummified body and its coffins were placed inside a large stone sarcophagus in the tomb. Furniture, clothing, valuable objects, food and drink were arranged in the tomb for the deceased.

Mummification was a highly skilled and dedicated process because the dead had to be well prepared for their journey through the underworld. There each soul’s heart will be judged by their good deeds on earth. If their heart is found to be pure they will be sent to live for all eternity in the beautiful 'Field of Reeds'.