Research Task – Ancient Egypt – Mummification Prior to about 3400 BC, all Egyptians were buried in shallow pit graves, whether rich or poor, royal or common. The heat and dryness of the sand dehydrated the bodies quickly, creating lifelike and natural ‘mummies’. Later however, as prosperity and the advance in building techniques improved, more elaborate tombs for those of high social status were constructed. Yet at the same time, these brick lined underground burial chambers no longer provided the conditions which led to natural mummification in the older pit graves causing the body to decay.
Now however, mummification had been established in the religious belief system so that the deceased’s ka, or spirit, could return to and recognize the body, re-enter it, and thus gain spiritual sustenance and if the body was decayed or unrecognisable, then the ka would go hungry and the afterlife of the deceased would be jeopardised. Mummification was therefore dedicated to the prevention of decay. Over many centuries, the ancient Egyptians developed a method of preserving bodies so they would remain lifelike.
The mummification process consisted of two main stages, first embalming the bodies and after wrapping them in strips of linen. Embalming the body First, the body is taken to the tent known as ‘ibu’ or the ‘place of purification’. There the embalmers wash the body with good-smelling palm wine and rinse it with water from the Nile. One of the embalmer’s men makes a cut in the left side of the body and removes many of the internal organs. It is important to remove these because they are the first part of the body to decompose. The liver, lungs, stomach and intestines are washed and packed in natron which will dry them out.
The heart is not taken out of the body because it is the centre of intelligence and feeling and the deceased will need it in the afterlife. A long hook is used to smash the brain and pull it out through the nose. The body is then covered and stuffed with natron which will dry it out. All of the fluids and rags from the embalming process will be saved and buried along with the body. After forty days the body is washed again with water from the Nile. Then it is covered with oils to help the skin stay elastic. The dehydrated internal organs are wrapped in linen and returned to the body.
The body is stuffed with dry materials such as sawdust, leaves and linen so that it looks lifelike. Finally the body is covered again with good-smelling oils. It is now ready to be wrapped in linen. In the past, when the internal organs were removed from a body they were placed in hollow ‘canopic jars’. Over many years the embalming practices changed and embalmers began returning internal organs to bodies after the organs had been dried in natron. However, solid wood or stone canopic jars were still buried with the mummy to symbolically protect the internal organs.
Imsety the human-headed god looks after the liver, Hapy the baboon-headed god looks after the lungs, Duamutef the jackal-headed god looks after the stomach and Qebehsenuef the falcon-headed god looks after the intestines. Wrapping the mummy After the embalming stage the body is then taken to get wrapped. First the head and neck are wrapped with strips of fine linen. Then the fingers and the toes are individually wrapped. The arms and legs are wrapped separately. Between the layers of wrapping, the embalmers place amulets to protect the body in its journey through the underworld.
A priest reads spells out loud while the mummy is being wrapped. These spells will help ward off evil spirits and help the deceased make the journey to the afterlife. The arms and legs are then tied together. A papyrus scroll with spells from the Book of the Dead is placed between the wrapped hands. More linen strips are wrapped around the body. At every layer, the bandages are painted with liquid resin that helps to glue the bandages together. A cloth is wrapped around the body and a picture of the god Osiris is painted on its surface. Finally, a large cloth is wrapped around the entire mummy.
It is attached with strips of linen that run from the top to the bottom of the mummy, and around its middle. A board of painted wood is placed on top of the mummy before the mummy is lowered into its coffin. The first coffin is then put inside a second coffin, sometimes if the deceased is someone very important a death mask is placed over the head of the outer mummy to provide an idealised image of the deceased as a resurrected being. The mask played a crucial symbolic role, for it signified the elevation of the dead person to a higher plane of existence in the afterlife.
Finally, the body and its coffins are placed inside a large stone sarcophagus in the tomb. Furniture, clothing, valuable objects, food and drink are arranged in the tomb and buried with the deceased. Now his body is ready for its journey through the underworld. There his heart will be judged by Osiris the god of the underworld of his good deeds on earth this ritual is known as the “weighing of the heart”. If his heart is found to be pure he will be sent to live for all eternity in the beautiful ‘Field of Reeds’. The entire process, from death to burial would take around seventy days.
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