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Making Mummies

Making Mummies

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Making Mummies - HISTORY

I know this is labeled as a "Story of the World" post, but we actually didn't use the text for this lesson. However, all the activities work perfectly with Chapter 4 - Making Mummies. If you aren't using Story of the World, these activities would make a great little unit study on Egyptian Mummies!

We had already read about the mummification process in several different library books on Egypt, so I wanted to take a different tack and look at the science behind how mummification works.

For our alternative text we used a page from "Science of Ancient Egypt: Mummification" (part of a larger bundle on Ancient Egypt by Dr. Dave's science which I bought after falling in love with his free sample unit on The Nile). It covered some things that the other books we read didn't about the science behind making mummies (like how microorganisms are involved in breaking down bodies, and how Natron, the salt mixture the Egyptians used in mummification, prevented these from growing by removing moisture).

While the Unit Study was for 4th - 7th graders, we did this when my son was a 1st grader with a Kindergarten sized attention span. I felt like the material was engaging and kid friendly enough for him to handle. especially since he loves science. (And I was right)

I didn't try to cover the whole unit though, since I knew that would be an attention span stretch. In stead I used a couple of pages from it for this lesson, and I did what I always do. added some tactiles and visuals, and of course, lots of questions.

First, we reviewed Egyptian mummification with this video.

Then, before we dug into the text, I took my son outside to see something I knew had been sitting out by the fence in our yard. the remains of a dead bird. I knew it would be a great example of what happens to an animal after it dies. and how microorganisms take part in that process (though I'm sure ants took a part too).

I pointed out the bones and the beak and the feather, and asked my son "What do you think happened to the rest of it, all the bird's muscles and stuff?"

He gave a guess about the bird going to heaven (theology lessons pop up when least expected, don't they?).

"Well, the Bible doesn't say whether birds go to Heaven. Some people think they do, and some people don't, but we don't know. But when people go to Heaven it says God gives us new bodies. so our old bodies stay here when we die. So even if animals go to Heaven it doesn't mean their bodies do too. So what do you think happened to the bird's body?"

I let him give a couple more guesses and then said, "Lets go inside and find out!" That got him interested and he listened intently as I read the whole page on "Preserving the Body" which talked about how microorganisms break up and consume dead things and how the mummification process prevents that.

At that my son expressed some fears about microorganisms eating him. so I told him about how when we're living that our cells have ways of fighting bad bacteria and germs, and that other bacteria lives in our body and doesn't hurt us, but when someone or something dies than its cells die too, and so the microorganisms then start to eat the dead cells.

While the video below doesn't directly answer that question, it does describe the process of decomposition and would be a good resource to share with older kids for this study. I don't suggest this for younger kids because some of the illustrations could be scary for them (though every kid is different. you could preview it and see if you thought it would work for your child). After minute 2:27 it talks about the problem of burial space/cost and some solutions, which is not as related to this lesson, so you may want to stop there (though it is interesting).

If your kids are interested in learning more about what we do with bodies to prepare them for burial today, this page also has good information.

We skipped the next page of the mummification unit study ("Salt) to come back to after we had done our egg experiment (as it gives away the end), and read the first paragraph of "The Chemistry of Salt." This paragraph talks about how salt is a mixture and how there are different kinds of salt (even baking soda is, chemically, a salt). So, I showed him some.

We looked at regular salt, coarse ground sea salt, Himalayan sea salt, Epson salts, and baking soda. I left these out on a dish for him touch and play with while I read the next paragraph about natron. When we got to the last paragraph about where the Egyptians got natron (in the Natron Valley, in the Nile Delta), we looked it up on our map.

Egg Mummy Experimen t
We followed up our study with an experiment where we mummified a hard boiled egg. I've seen this done with apples too, or a whole chicken (as suggested in the SOTW Activity book). Several day into our experiment, we read the page on "Salt" that we had earlier skipped, after making guesses as to why our egg had shrunk and hardened.

  1. Hard boil an egg (or two if you want to have a "control" egg. see section below). Peel off the shell.
  2. Measure the egg with flexible tape ruler and write down results.
  3. Weigh egg and write down results.
  4. Mix an equal amount of salt and baking soda to make an approximation of natron (you can just use salt in stead). enough to cover an egg.
  5. Put the egg in a cup or open container and cover completely with natron mixture.
  6. Uncover egg and repeat steps 1 - 3 every day for several weeks until the weight and size remains constant.

Below are our pictures of our egg mummy (left) and control egg (right). OK, yes, that first picture is the same egg reversed. cause I didn't take a picture of the mummified one before we put it in the salt. It's not consecutive days because we didn't take a picture every day (the days shown are as follows: Day 1, Day 2, Day 5, Day 9, Day 12), and the sizes are not completely to scale, though I did try to show how they shrunk (it was a little more dramatic than the pictures here show, actually). But you can still get the general idea.

The history of mummy paper in America is intimately connected with the history of both American papermaking and papermaking in general.

Supply shortages Edit

Paper can be said to have been born in ancient Egypt, circa 2000 B.C., with the invention of what the Romans called “papyrus”, based on an earlier Greek name for the material. Papyrus is not paper in the modern sense of the word, since it was formed from compressed sheets of reed stalks and not a pulp. Paper made from a pulped plant fiber can be credited to Ts’ai Lun of China in 105 A.D., when he first presented the Emperor a sheet of paper made from the inner bark of a mulberry tree. When the technique of papermaking found its way into Europe, paper was made not from trees but from a pulp of cotton and linen rag fibers. This technique of papermaking first came to America in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1690 when William Rittenhouse established the first paper mill. Rittenhouse had been a papermaker in Amsterdam, the Netherlands before coming to America, bringing European techniques with him. [2]

By the 1850s, papermaking in America was reaching a crisis point. America was producing more newspapers than any other country and its paper consumption was equal to England and France’s combined. According to one 1856 estimate, it would take 6,000 wagons, each carrying two tons of paper, to carry all the paper consumed by American newspapers in a single year. [3] This equals out to a need for 405,000,000 pounds of rags for the 800 paper mills then at work in the United States. [4] Most of these rags were imported from Europe, with the largest source being from Italy. By 1854, however, Italy also started exporting rags to England, decreasing the supply available to American paper-makers. [5] This meant that a substitute for or a new supply source of rags needed to be found, and quickly.

Isaiah Deck Edit

At this same time period, Egyptian mummies were reasonably known to the public in America. Many mummies had been part of exhibits and had been shown in museums and traveling shows across the country. In fact, Dr. Pettigrew was the operator of one such show, where he would unwrap or unroll mummies in front of a crowd for their amusement. [6] The impetus for a new supply source of rags for paper may have come from Dr. Isaiah Deck, an Englishman by birth, a New Yorker by residence, a geologist by trade, an archeologist by hobby and a determined explorer. On an earlier copper prospecting trip to Jamaica, Deck had evaluated other sources for paper including aloe, plantain, banana and dagger-grass, but none were acceptable. [7] Thus, already preoccupied with paper and paper sources, Deck set out on a trip to Egypt in 1847 to search for Cleopatra’s lost emerald mines. Deck’s father, also named Isaiah, had known Giovanni Belzoni, a famous Italian robber of Egyptian tombs Deck the younger thus inherited from his father some Egyptian artifacts, including a piece of linen from a mummy. [8]

While searching for the lost mines, Deck couldn’t help but notice the plethora of mummies and mummy parts that turned up in communal burial sites called “mummy pits.” He wrote, “So numerous are they in some localities out of the usual beaten tracks of most travelers, that after the periodical storms whole areas may be seen stripped of sand, and leaving fragments and limbs exposed in such plenty and variety.” [9] Deck did some calculations: assume two thousand years of widespread embalming, an average life span of thirty-three years and a stable population of eight million. This would leave you with about five hundred million mummies. Add to that the number of mummified animals including cats, bulls and crocodiles, and the number drastically rises. Deck also states, “it is by no means rare to find above 30 lbs. weight of linen wrappings on mummies…A princess from the late Mr. Pettigrew’s collection was swathed in 40 thicknesses, producing 42 yards of the finest texture.” [10] Deck further calculated that the average consumption of paper in America is about 15 lbs. per person per year. This meant that the supply from Egyptian mummies would be able to keep up with the American demand for about 14 years, by which point a substitute supply source or material would likely have been discovered, rendering the need for rags unnecessary. [11]

Whether or not American paper mills took Isaiah Deck’s proposal seriously cannot be either conclusively proved or rejected. However, some evidence does remain.

Dard Hunter Edit

Dard Hunter is a well-known paper researcher and cataloguer and a proponent of handmade paper. His book, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, relates the experiments of I. Augustus Stanwood in both ground-wood paper and mummy paper. Hunter received his information from Stanwood’s son Daniel, a professor of international law. According to Daniel, during the American Civil War his father was hard-pressed for materials for his Maine mill. As such, he imported mummies from Egypt, stripped the bodies of their wrappings and used this material for making paper. Several shiploads of mummies were brought to the mill in Gardiner, Maine and were thus used to make a brown wrapping paper for grocers, butchers and other merchants. Professor Stanwood continues on to report that the rags supposedly caused a cholera outbreak among the workers since there were no standards for disinfection at this time. However, since cholera is actually a bacterium, it is unlikely that active disease cells could have survived for centuries in the wrappings, meaning the outbreak at the plant was likely either from poor personal hygiene of the workers or from dirty rags recently imported from deceased Europeans, primarily Frenchmen and Italians, rather than the mummy rags. [12]

Hunter also writes in an extensive footnote of a letter he received from a Mrs. John Ramsey of Syracuse, New York, relating the story her father’s friend used to tell her of his days in a paper mill in Broadalbin, New York. He worked there from 1855–1860 and was one of the men responsible for unrolling the old linen wrappings from the mummies the mill received. She wrote to Hunter that “the rolled-up vestments retained the shape of the mummy, so that when the workmen tried to straighten or unroll the ‘cocoon’…it sprang back at once into the shape of the mummy it had encased so long.” [13] She also describes the material as cream-coloured linen still bearing fragments of embroidery on the edges.

Hunter also writes about and quotes from Deck’s proposal on the importation of mummies. However, Hunter refers to the work as a manuscript, leaving Joseph Dane to dismiss the work off-hand, stating that the work could not be found and implying that Hunter invented it to suit his purpose. [14] This claim of Dane must also be dismissed, since authors both before and since Dane, including Deck’s contemporaries and modern authors, among which are both Wolfe and Baker, have been able to find copies of this paper. Dane also dismisses Deck’s writing, and therefore Hunter’s, on the basis that it is in the mode of Swiftonian satire. He cites Deck’s references to thrift, concern with alleviating shortages and his precision in his calculations as further evidence of his writing in the manner of Book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels. Dane also writes that Hunter should have realized that Deck wasn't serious, thus questioning Hunter’s own authority in the field. [15]

Evidence from periodicals Edit

It is a verifiable fact that rags from Egypt were imported during this time period. Joel Munsell was a prolific printer and publisher from Albany, New York and he kept a scrapbook of articles relating to his trade. This eventually became the basis for his book Chronology of the Origin and Progress of Paper and Paper-Making. For an entry from 1855, Munsell records that a cargo of 1215 bales of Egyptian rags arrived and were purchased by J Priestly & Co. for about 4 cents a pound. His source, the Paper Trade Reporter, stated that the final purchase price for the transaction was $25,000. [16] The next year, the New York Tribune wrote that about two and a quarter million pounds of rags have been imported from Egypt. [17]

Articles discussing the practicality and the financial implications of the import of mummies for paper for the government of Egypt and American paper mills were also published in the 7 July 1847 issue of The Friend, the 19 June 1847 issue of Scientific American and the 17 December 1847 issue of the Cold War Fountain. [18] While none of these articles confirm the manufacture of said paper in America, they do prove that the concept was both widely spoken of and under discussion in well-known and respected periodicals of the day.

Another article ran in the April 1873 edition of The Druggists’ Circular and Chemical Gazette that described an 1866 visit of a New York businessman to Alexandria. There, he purchased and “exported to the United States ‘mummies from the catacombs’ to be converted to pulp for papermaking.” This article also pointed out that mummies weren't ideal for printing paper due to the various oils and botanicals included in the rags, which lead to the discoloration of the paper. [19] This corroborates Hunter’s report that Stanwood’s mill used the mummies to make a brown butcher paper.

On 31 July 1856, the Syracuse Standard ran a notice in its paper that informed readers that it was printed on paper made from rags imported directly from Egypt. The rags were imported by Mr. G.W. Ryan and were processed at his plant in Marcellus Falls. [20] Munsell adds the note that the rags were stripped from mummies. [21] Hunter reports that he is unable to find a copy of this issue, [13] and Dane takes this to mean that the paper didn't claim to have been printed on mummy paper, but just on rags from the region of mummies. [22] Baker, however, has located a copy of the paper at the Onondaga Historical Association and confirmed both the wording of the notice and the physical difference of this issue from those before it. [23]

Evidence against mummy paper Edit

Dane argues that mummy paper cannot possibly exist because all the references to the paper are either vaguely documented or are the product of oral history. He also argues that they have an aura of Swift about them and that all the original writers have the intent of satire. Dane also states that neither the copy of the Standard on mummy paper can be found, nor can Deck’s article be found, both of which statements have clearly been proven wrong. [24]

There are indeed some facts that make proving the concrete existence of mummy paper impossible. First off, the paper from the Standard and the Norwich broadside cannot be chemically tested to prove they are from mummies, as the test would only prove they are made of linen. Nor can they be carbon-14 dated. This test requires the burning of the material, meaning that items that exist in only one or two copies would have to be destroyed to complete the test, something that clearly cannot be done. Also, mummies were made for over 4,000 years in Egypt, so even a time frame for the paper product wouldn't narrow down the age of the material to a useful window for solid conclusions to be made. Additionally, the percentage of mummy cloth to any other rag in a given pulp mixture could skew the results of the test. DNA testing would also prove to be inconclusive, as the only thing this test would verify is that the material at one point had close contact with a human.

Outside of scientific tests, there are no extant records of paper mills buying mummies. If there were records or account books, they have either been lost or recycled by the mill itself for more paper. There are no photographs of mummies or mummy wrappings at any paper mills. Shipping records and custom records have likewise vanished. However, these may not have proved anything conclusively either since rags for paper were duty-free at this time, the cargo wouldn't have needed to have been declared. Even if the mummy rags had been declared, they probably would have been declared as rags for paper, without the provenance given. [25]

Perhaps the most famous claimed use of mummies in other industries than papermaking appeared in Mark Twain’s novel Innocents Abroad. [26] He writes of the practice then current on the Egyptian railroad of using mummies for fuel to power the locomotives.

I shall not speak of the railway, for it is like any other railway—I shall only say that the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, "D--n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent—pass out a King … [27]

This master story teller was speaking tongue in cheek. He lets the reader in on the joke in the next passage, which reads "Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe any thing." This story has been mentioned by a number of seemingly reliable secondary sources, including an article in Scientific American in 1859 and, more recently, a paper published for BBC News in 2011. [28] As Heather Pringle noted in her definitive book The Mummy Congress, [29] "no expert has ever been able to authenticate the story . Twain seems to be the only published source -- and a rather suspect one at that."

There are many sources relating to the use of ground-up mummies (mummia) in pharmaceuticals. In fact, Merck & Company sold mummy up until 1910. Ground-up mummified bodies also produce a brown pigment, still referred to as “mummy brown” or “Egyptian brown”. [30] The color is no longer produced from mummies. [31] Additional by-products of mummies include the distillation of the bodies to produce aromatic oils, such as olibanum and ambergris, which can be made into machine oils, soaps or even incense. [32] Clearly, mummies were a multi-product import of choice, much as the buffalo or whale had been before them.

The Making of a Modern Mummy

Ed Young investigates the ancient process of Egyptian mummification.

When Mr M, an elderly Baltimore man, died of heart failure in 1994 he donated his body to science. Like Rameses the Great, the Egyptian Pharaoh who died in 1225 BC, his passing was treated with all due reverence. Both were annointed with oils and spices, and carefully wrapped in linen shrouds upon which were written farewell messages in hieroglyphics.

But where Rameses, responsible for building the great temple of Abu Simbel, had Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, watching as he was prepared, annointed and wrapped, Mr M’s preservation was supervised by two American scholars: Egyptologist Bob Brier, chairman of the Philosophy Department at Long Island University, and Ronald Wade, director of Anatomical Services at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

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NS.K-4.1 Science as Inquiry
NS.K-4.2 Physical Science
NS.K-4.3 Life Science
NS.K-4.6 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
NS.K-4.7 History and Nature of Science
GRADES 5 - 8
NS.5-8.1 Science as Inquiry
NS.5-8.2 Physical Science
NS.5-8.3 Life Science
NS.5-8.6 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
NS.5-8.7 History and Nature of Science
GRADES 9 - 12
NS.9-12.1 Science as Inquiry
NS.9-12.2 Physical Science
NS.9-12.3 Life Science
NS.9-12.6 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
NS.9-12.7 History and Nature of Science

GRADES 5 - 12
NSS-WH.5-12.3 Classical Traditions, Major Religions, and Giant Empires

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Egyptian Notions of Death and Afterlife

Ancient Egyptian beliefs on death and afterlife were quite elaborate in nature. It was believed that every living being had a Ka, which stood for spirit or the vital spark. As long as an individual lived, the Ka never left him. But, the moment he/she died, Ka also faded away. This was due to a simple reason that when a person lived, all the food and drink that he/she consumed, empowered the Ka. But, after death, because the individual obviously stopped having food, Ka’s existence became impossible as it could no longer sustain itself. So, in order to keep the Ka alive forever, offerings of food were made to the it, so that it could consume its spiritual essence. On the other hand, was the Ba, the soul of an individual. Unlike the Ka that left the person on his/her death, the Ba remained with the person even after he/she died.

Egyptian funerary customs were aimed at separating the Ba from the body of the deceased and uniting it with the Ka, so that both of them together, could enter the afterlife and lead an immortal existence. However, it was believed that every night, Ba returned to its body so that it could get a new life. If the body was not preserved, Ba would not recognize it, and would not be able to return to the afterlife ever again, thus ending the existence of the person in actual sense. Mummification facilitated the preservation of the dead body, thus enabling the Ba to recognize it and enter it during the night in order to rejuvenate itself.

Afterlife was a very important concept in the ancient Egyptian religion. A normal Egyptian lived up to the age of about 40 years or so. The very thought of gaining immortality after death was satisfying to a large extent and mummification ensured this immorality. So, the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead.

Easy to make, but where did the ingredients come from?

Archaeologists were able to come up with a basic list of mummy-making ingredients: plant oil (maybe sesame), pinch of root extract (maybe from bulrushes), eye of newt — err, a plant-based gum, and tree resin.

Of course, as any chef will tell you, especially one who works with preserves, having all the ingredients doesn't mean you actually make something with them.

Fortunately, we already have a good idea of how mummies are prepared. The brain, for example, is removed and whisked into a consistent liquid. At the same time, the body is salted to dry it out thoroughly. The remaining organs are plucked out. And the body is coated with the embalming solution, which protects it against bacteria.

Wait 70 days, wrap that body in linen, and voila!

Okay, so a recipe for making mummies may not be of much practical value. Mummified eggs will probably never be a thing. Besides, some of those ingredients aren't exactly flying off the shelves at the local Safeway.

But that's also why scientists see the new research as so important. Those ingredients had to be imported from far-flung places — the nearest source of pine resin, for example, would have been the region known today as Israel and Palestine.

It suggests, Buckley points out, a pan-Egyptian identity with sophisticated trade routes spanning distant lands, one that thrived before the region came together under one rule..

It also tells us that the fascination with priming bodies for the afterlife was shared more widely and by more people than the pharaohs were letting on.


The English word mummy is derived from medieval Latin mumia, a borrowing of the medieval Arabic word mūmiya (مومياء) and from a Persian word mūm (wax), [6] which meant an embalmed corpse, and as well as the bituminous embalming substance, and also meant "bitumen". [7] The Medieval English term "mummy" was defined as "medical preparation of the substance of mummies", rather than the entire corpse, with Richard Hakluyt in 1599 AD complaining that "these dead bodies are the Mummy which the Phisistians and Apothecaries doe against our willes make us to swallow". [8] These substances were defined as mummia.

The OED defines a mummy as "the body of a human being or animal embalmed (according to the ancient Egyptian or some analogous method) as a preparation for burial", citing sources from 1615 AD onward. [9] However, Chamber's Cyclopædia and the Victorian zoologist Francis Trevelyan Buckland [10] define a mummy as follows: "A human or animal body desiccated by exposure to sun or air. Also applied to the frozen carcase of an animal imbedded in prehistoric snow".

Wasps of the genus Aleiodes are known as "mummy wasps" because they wrap their caterpillar prey as "mummies".

While interest in the study of mummies dates as far back as Ptolemaic Greece, most structured scientific study began at the beginning of the 20th century. [11] Prior to this, many rediscovered mummies were sold as curiosities or for use in pseudoscientific novelties such as mummia. [12] The first modern scientific examinations of mummies began in 1901, conducted by professors at the English-language Government School of Medicine in Cairo, Egypt. The first X-ray of a mummy came in 1903, when professors Grafton Elliot Smith and Howard Carter used the only X-ray machine in Cairo at the time to examine the mummified body of Thutmose IV. [13] British chemist Alfred Lucas applied chemical analyses to Egyptian mummies during this same period, which returned many results about the types of substances used in embalming. Lucas also made significant contributions to the analysis of Tutankhamun in 1922. [14]

Pathological study of mummies saw varying levels of popularity throughout the 20th century. [15] In 1992, the First World Congress on Mummy Studies was held in Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. More than 300 scientists attended the Congress to share nearly 100 years of collected data on mummies. The information presented at the meeting triggered a new surge of interest in the subject, with one of the major results being integration of biomedical and bioarchaeological information on mummies with existing databases. This was not possible prior to the Congress due to the unique and highly specialized techniques required to gather such data. [16]

In more recent years, CT scanning has become an invaluable tool in the study of mummification by allowing researchers to digitally "unwrap" mummies without risking damage to the body. [17] The level of detail in such scans is so intricate that small linens used in tiny areas such as the nostrils can be digitally reconstructed in 3-D. [18] Such modelling has been utilized to perform digital autopsies on mummies to determine cause of death and lifestyle, such as in the case of Tutankhamun. [19]

Mummies are typically divided into one of two distinct categories: anthropogenic or spontaneous. Anthropogenic mummies were deliberately created by the living for any number of reasons, the most common being for religious purposes. Spontaneous mummies, such as Ötzi, were created unintentionally due to natural conditions such as extremely dry heat or cold, or anaerobic conditions such as those found in bogs. [16] While most individual mummies exclusively belong to one category or the other, there are examples of both types being connected to a single culture, such as those from the ancient Egyptian culture and the Andean cultures of South America. [20] Some of the later well-preserved corpses of the mummification were found under Christian churches, such as the mummified vicar Nicolaus Rungius found under the St. Michael Church in Keminmaa, Finland. [21] [22]

Until recently, it was believed that the earliest ancient Egyptian mummies were created naturally due to the environment in which they were buried. [1] [23] In 2014, an 11-year study by University of York, Macquarie University and University of Oxford suggested that artificial mummification occurred 1,500 years earlier than first thought. [24] This was confirmed in 2018, when tests on a 5,600 year-old mummy in Turin revealed that it had been deliberately mummified using linen wrappings and embalming oils made from conifer resin and aromatic plant extracts. [25] [26]

The preservation of the dead had a profound effect on ancient Egyptian religion. Mummification was an integral part of the rituals for the dead beginning as early as the 2nd dynasty (about 2800 BC). [20] Egyptians saw the preservation of the body after death as an important step to living well in the afterlife. As Egypt gained more prosperity, burial practices became a status symbol for the wealthy as well. This cultural hierarchy lead to the creation of elaborate tombs, and more sophisticated methods of embalming. [20] [27]

By the 4th dynasty (about 2600 BC) Egyptian embalmers began to achieve "true mummification" through a process of evisceration. Much of this early experimentation with mummification in Egypt is unknown.

The few documents that directly describe the mummification process date to the Greco-Roman period. The majority of the papyri that have survived only describe the ceremonial rituals involved in embalming, not the actual surgical processes involved. A text known as The Ritual of Embalming does describe some of the practical logistics of embalming however, there are only two known copies and each is incomplete. [28] [29] With regards to mummification shown in images, there are apparently also very few. The tomb of Tjay, designated TT23, is one of only two known which show the wrapping of a mummy (Riggs 2014). [30]

Another text that describes the processes being used in latter periods is Herodotus' Histories. Written in Book 2 of the Histories is one of the most detailed descriptions of the Egyptian mummification process, including the mention of using natron in order to dehydrate corpses for preservation. [31] However, these descriptions are short and fairly vague, leaving scholars to infer the majority of the techniques that were used by studying mummies that have been unearthed. [29]

By utilizing current advancements in technology, scientists have been able to uncover a plethora of new information about the techniques used in mummification. A series of CT scans performed on a 2,400-year-old mummy in 2008 revealed a tool that was left inside the cranial cavity of the skull. [32] The tool was a rod, made of an organic material, that was used to break apart the brain to allow it to drain out of the nose. This discovery helped to dispel the claim within Herodotus' works that the rod had been a hook made of iron. [31] Earlier experimentation in 1994 by researchers Bob Brier and Ronald Wade supported these findings. While attempting to replicate Egyptian mummification, Brier and Wade discovered that removal of the brain was much easier when the brain was liquefied and allowed to drain with the help of gravity, as opposed to trying to pull the organ out piece-by-piece with a hook. [29]

Through various methods of study over many decades, modern Egyptologists now have an accurate understanding of how mummification was achieved in ancient Egypt. The first and most important step was to halt the process of decomposition, by removing the internal organs and washing out the body with a mix of spices and palm wine. [20] The only organ left behind was the heart, as tradition held the heart was the seat of thought and feeling and would therefore still be needed in the afterlife. [20] After cleansing, the body was then dried out with natron inside the empty body cavity as well as outside on the skin. The internal organs were also dried and either sealed in individual jars, or wrapped to be replaced within the body. This process typically took forty days. [29]

After dehydration, the mummy was wrapped in many layers of linen cloth. Within the layers, Egyptian priests placed small amulets to guard the decedent from evil. [20] Once the mummy was completely wrapped, it was coated in a resin in order to keep the threat of moist air away. Resin was also applied to the coffin in order to seal it. The mummy was then sealed within its tomb, alongside the worldly goods that were believed to help aid it in the afterlife. [28]

Aspergillus niger, a hardy species of fungus capable of living in a variety of environments, has been found in the mummies of ancient Egyptian tombs and can be inhaled when they are disturbed. [33]

Mummification and rank

Mummification is one of the defining customs in ancient Egyptian society for people today. The practice of preserving the human body is believed to be a quintessential feature of Egyptian life. Yet even mummification has a history of development and was accessible to different ranks of society in different ways during different periods. There were at least three different processes of mummification according to Herodotus. They range from "the most perfect" to the method employed by the "poorer classes". [34]

"Most perfect" method

The most expensive process was to preserve the body by dehydration and protect against pests, such as insects. Almost all of the actions Herodotus described serve one of these two functions.

First, the brain was removed from the cranium through the nose the gray matter was discarded. Modern mummy excavations have shown that instead of an iron hook inserted through the nose as Herodotus claims, a rod was used to liquefy the brain via the cranium, which then drained out the nose by gravity. The embalmers then rinsed the skull with certain drugs that mostly cleared any residue of brain tissue and also had the effect of killing bacteria. Next, the embalmers made an incision along the flank with a sharp blade fashioned from an Ethiopian stone and removed the contents of the abdomen. Herodotus does not discuss the separate preservation of these organs and their placement either in special jars or back in the cavity, a process that was part of the most expensive embalming, according to archaeological evidence.

The abdominal cavity was then rinsed with palm wine and an infusion of crushed, fragrant herbs and spices the cavity was then filled with spices including myrrh, cassia, and, Herodotus notes, "every other sort of spice except frankincense", also to preserve the person.

The body was further dehydrated by placing it in natron, a naturally occurring salt, for seventy days. Herodotus insists that the body did not stay in the natron longer than seventy days. Any shorter time and the body is not completely dehydrated any longer, and the body is too stiff to move into position for wrapping. The embalmers then wash the body again and wrapped it with linen bandages. The bandages were covered with a gum that modern research has shown is both waterproofing agent and an antimicrobial agent.

At this point, the body was given back to the family. These "perfect" mummies were then placed in wooden cases that were human-shaped. Richer people placed these wooden cases in stone sarcophagi that provided further protection. The family placed the sarcophagus in the tomb upright against the wall, according to Herodotus. [35]

Avoiding expense

The second process that Herodotus describes was used by middle-class people or people who "wish to avoid expense". In this method, an oil derived from cedar trees was injected with a syringe into the abdomen. A rectal plug prevented the oil from escaping. This oil probably had the dual purpose of liquefying the internal organs but also of disinfecting the abdominal cavity. (By liquefying the organs, the family avoided the expense of canopic jars and separate preservation.) The body was then placed in natron for seventy days. At the end of this time, the body was removed and the cedar oil, now containing the liquefied organs, was drained through the rectum. With the body dehydrated, it could be returned to the family. Herodotus does not describe the process of burial of such mummies, but they were perhaps placed in a shaft tomb. Poorer people used coffins fashioned from terracotta. [34]

Inexpensive method

The third and least-expensive method the embalmers offered was to clear the intestines with an unnamed liquid, injected as an enema. The body was then placed in natron for seventy days and returned to the family. Herodotus gives no further details. [36]

In Christian tradition, some bodies of saints are naturally conserved and venerated.


In addition to the mummies of Egypt, there have been instances of mummies being discovered in other areas of the African continent. [37] The bodies show a mix of anthropogenic and spontaneous mummification, with some being thousands of years old. [38]


The mummified remains of an infant were discovered during an expedition by archaeologist Fabrizio Mori to Libya during the winter of 1958–1959 in the natural cave structure of Uan Muhuggiag. [39] After curious deposits and cave paintings were discovered on the surfaces of the cave, expedition leaders decided to excavate. Uncovered alongside fragmented animal bone tools was the mummified body of an infant, wrapped in animal skin and wearing a necklace made of ostrich egg shell beads. Professor Tongiorgi of the University of Pisa radiocarbon-dated the infant to between 5,000 and 8,000 years old. A long incision located on the right abdominal wall, and the absence of internal organs, indicated that the body had been eviscerated post-mortem, possibly in an effort to preserve the remains. [40] A bundle of herbs found within the body cavity also supported this conclusion. [41] Further research revealed that the child had been around 30 months old at the time of death, though gender could not be determined due to poor preservation of the sex organs. [42] [43]

South Africa

The first mummy to be discovered in South Africa [44] was found in the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area by Dr. Johan Binneman in 1999. [45] [46] Nicknamed Moses, the mummy was estimated to be around 2,000 years old. [44] [45] After being linked to the indigenous Khoi culture of the region, the National Council of Khoi Chiefs of South Africa began to make legal demands that the mummy be returned shortly after the body was moved to the Albany Museum in Grahamstown. [47]

The mummies of Asia are usually considered to be accidental. The decedents were buried in just the right place where the environment could act as an agent for preservation. This is particularly common in the desert areas of the Tarim Basin and Iran. Mummies have been discovered in more humid Asian climates, however these are subject to rapid decay after being removed from the grave.


Mummies from various dynasties throughout China's history have been discovered in several locations across the country. They are almost exclusively considered to be unintentional mummifications. Many areas in which mummies have been uncovered are difficult for preservation, due to their warm, moist climates. This makes the recovery of mummies a challenge, as exposure to the outside world can cause the bodies to decay in a matter of hours. [ citation needed ]

An example of a Chinese mummy that was preserved despite being buried in an environment not conducive to mummification is Xin Zhui. Also known as Lady Dai, she was discovered in the early 1970s at the Mawangdui archaeological site in Changsha. [48] She was the wife of the marquis of Dai during the Han dynasty, who was also buried with her alongside another young man often considered to be a very close relative. [49] However, Xin Zhui's body was the only one of the three to be mummified. Her corpse was so well-preserved that surgeons from the Hunan Provincial Medical Institute were able to perform an autopsy. [48] The exact reason why her body was so completely preserved has yet to be determined. [50]

Among the mummies discovered in China are those termed Tarim mummies because of their discovery in the Tarim Basin. The dry desert climate of the basin proved to be an excellent agent for desiccation. For this reason, over 200 Tarim mummies, which are over 4,000 years old, were excavated from a cemetery in the present-day Xinjiang region. [51] The mummies were found buried in upside-down boats with hundreds of 13-foot-long wooden poles in the place of tombstones. [51] DNA sequence data [52] shows that the mummies had Haplogroup R1a (Y-DNA) characteristic of western Eurasia in the area of East-Central Europe, Central Asia and Indus Valley. [53] This has created a stir in the Turkic-speaking Uighur population of the region, who claim the area has always belonged to their culture, while it was not until the 10th century when the Uighurs are said by scholars to have moved to the region from Central Asia. [54] American Sinologist Victor H. Mair claims that "the earliest mummies in the Tarim Basin were exclusively Caucasoid, or Europoid" with "east Asian migrants arriving in the eastern portions of the Tarim Basin around 3,000 years ago", while Mair also notes that it was not until 842 that the Uighur peoples settled in the area. [55] Other mummified remains have been recovered from around the Tarim Basin at sites including Qäwrighul, Yanghai, Shengjindian, Shanpula (Sampul), Zaghunluq, and Qizilchoqa. [56]

As of 2012, at least eight mummified human remains have been recovered from the Douzlakh Salt Mine at Chehr Abad in northwestern Iran. [57] Due to their salt preservation, these bodies are collectively known as Saltmen. [58] Carbon-14 testing conducted in 2008 dated three of the bodies to around 400 BC. Later isotopic research on the other mummies returned similar dates, however, many of these individuals were found to be from a region that is not closely associated with the mine. It was during this time that researchers determined the mine suffered a major collapse, which likely caused the death of the miners. [57] Since there is significant archaeological data that indicates the area was not actively inhabited during this time period, current consensus holds that the accident occurred during a brief period of temporary mining activity. [57]


In 1993, a team of Russian archaeologists led by Dr. Natalia Polosmak discovered the Siberian Ice Maiden, a Scytho-Siberian woman, on the Ukok Plateau in the Altai Mountains near the Mongolian border. [59] The mummy was naturally frozen due to the severe climatic conditions of the Siberian steppe. Also known as Princess Ukok, the mummy was dressed in finely detailed clothing and wore an elaborate headdress and jewelry. Alongside her body were buried six decorated horses and a symbolic meal for her last journey. [60] Her left arm and hand were tattooed with animal style figures, including a highly stylized deer. [59]

The Ice Maiden has been a source of some recent controversy. The mummy's skin has suffered some slight decay, and the tattoos have faded since the excavation. Some residents of the Altai Republic, formed after the breakup of the Soviet Union, have requested the return of the Ice Maiden, who is currently stored in Novosibirsk in Siberia. [59] [60] [61]

Another Siberian mummy, a man, was discovered much earlier in 1929. His skin was also marked with tattoos of two monsters resembling griffins, which decorated his chest, and three partially obliterated images which seem to represent two deer and a mountain goat on his left arm. [59]


Philippine mummies are called Kabayan Mummies. They are common in Igorot culture and their heritage. The mummies are found in some areas named Kabayan, Sagada and among others. The mummies are dated between the 14th and 19th centuries.


The European continent is home to a diverse spectrum of spontaneous and anthropogenic mummies. [62] Some of the best-preserved mummies have come from bogs located across the region. The Capuchin monks that inhabited the area left behind hundreds of intentionally-preserved bodies that have provided insight into the customs and cultures of people from various eras. One of the oldest mummies (nicknamed Ötzi) was discovered on this continent. New mummies continue to be uncovered in Europe well into the 21st Century.

Bog bodies

The United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark have produced a number of bog bodies, mummies of people deposited in sphagnum bogs, apparently as a result of murder or ritual sacrifices. In such cases, the acidity of the water, low temperature and lack of oxygen combined to tan the body's skin and soft tissues. The skeleton typically disintegrates over time. Such mummies are remarkably well preserved on emerging from the bog, with skin and internal organs intact it is even possible to determine the decedent's last meal by examining stomach contents. The Haraldskær Woman was discovered by labourers in a bog in Jutland in 1835. She was erroneously identified as an early medieval Danish queen, and for that reason was placed in a royal sarcophagus at the Saint Nicolai Church, Vejle, where she currently remains. Another bog body, also from Denmark, known as the Tollund Man was discovered in 1950. The corpse was noted for its excellent preservation of the face and feet, which appeared as if the man had recently died. Only the head of Tollund Man remains, due to the decomposition of the rest of his body, which was not preserved along with the head. [63]

Canary Islands

The mummies of the Canary Islands belong to the indigenous Guanche people and date to the time before 14th Century Spanish explorers settled in the area. All deceased people within the Guanche culture were mummified during this time, though the level of care taken with embalming and burial varied depending on individual social status. Embalming was carried out by specialized groups, organized according to gender, who were considered unclean by the rest of the community. The techniques for embalming were similar to those of the ancient Egyptians involving evisceration, preservation, and stuffing of the evacuated bodily cavities, then wrapping of the body in animal skins. Despite the successful techniques utilized by the Guanche, very few mummies remain due to looting and desecration. [64] [65]

Czech Republic

The majority of mummies recovered in the Czech Republic come from underground crypts. While there is some evidence of deliberate mummification, most sources state that desiccation occurred naturally due to unique conditions within the crypts. [66] [67] [68]

The Capuchin Crypt in Brno contains three hundred years of mummified remains directly below the main altar. [67] Beginning in the 18th Century when the crypt was opened, and continuing until the practice was discontinued in 1787, the Capuchin friars of the monastery would lay the deceased on a pillow of bricks on the ground. The unique air quality and topsoil within the crypt naturally preserved the bodies over time. [67] [68]

Approximately fifty mummies were discovered in an abandoned crypt beneath the Church of St. Procopius of Sázava in Vamberk in the mid-1980s. [69] Workers digging a trench accidentally broke into the crypt, which began to fill with waste water. The mummies quickly began to deteriorate, though thirty-four were able to be rescued and stored temporarily at the District Museum of the Orlické Mountains until they could be returned to the monastery in 2000. [69] The mummies range in age and social status at time of death, with at least two children and one priest. [67] [69] The majority of the Vamberk mummies date from the 18th century. [69]

The Klatovy catacombs currently house an exhibition of Jesuit mummies, alongside some aristocrats, that were originally interred between 1674 and 1783. In the early 1930s, the mummies were accidentally damaged during repairs, resulting in the loss of 140 bodies. The newly updated airing system preserves the thirty-eight bodies that are currently on display. [67] [70]


Apart from several bog bodies, Denmark has also yielded several other mummies, such as the three Borum Eshøj mummies, the Skrydstrup Woman and the Egtved Girl, who were all found inside burial mounds, or tumuli.

In 1875, the Borum Eshøj grave mound was uncovered, which had been built around three coffins, which belonged to a middle aged man and woman as well as a man in his early twenties. [71] Through examination, the woman was discovered to be around 50–60 years old. She was found with several artifacts made of bronze, consisting of buttons, a belt plate, and rings, showing she was of higher class. All of the hair had been removed from the skull later when farmers had dug through the casket. Her original hairstyle is unknown. [72] The two men wore kilts, and the younger man wore a sheath which contained a bronze dagger. All three mummies were dated to 1351–1345 BC. [71]

The Skrydstrup Woman was unearthed from a tumulus in Southern Jutland, in 1935. Carbon-14 dating showed that she had died around 1300 BC examination also revealed that she was around 18–19 years old at the time of death, and that she had been buried in the summertime. Her hair had been drawn up in an elaborate hairstyle, which was then covered by a horse hair hairnet made by the sprang technique. She was wearing a blouse and a necklace as well as two golden earrings, showing she was of higher class. [73]

The Egtved Girl, dated to 1370 BC, was also found inside a sealed coffin within a tumulus, in 1921. She was wearing a bodice and a skirt, including a belt and bronze bracelets. Found with the girl, at her feet, were the cremated remains of a child and, by her head, a box containing some bronze pins, a hairnet, and an awl. [74] [75] [76]


In 1994, 265 mummified bodies were found in the crypt of a Dominican church in Vác, Hungary from the 1729–1838 period. The discovery proved to be scientifically important, and by 2006 an exhibition was established in the Museum of Natural History in Budapest. Unique to the Hungarian mummies are their elaborately decorated coffins, with no two being exactly alike. [77]


The varied geography and climatology of Italy has led to many cases of spontaneous mummification. [78] Italian mummies display the same diversity, with a conglomeration of natural and intentional mummification spread across many centuries and cultures.

The oldest natural mummy in Europe was discovered in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps on the Austrian-Italian border. Nicknamed Ötzi, the mummy is a 5,300-year-old male believed to be a member of the Tamins-Carasso-Isera cultural group of South Tyrol. [79] [80] Despite his age, a recent DNA study conducted by Walther Parson of Innsbruck Medical University revealed Ötzi has 19 living genetic relatives. [79]

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo were built in the 16th century by the friars of Palermo's Capuchin monastery. Originally intended to hold the deliberately mummified remains of dead friars, interment in the catacombs became a status symbol for the local population in the following centuries. Burials continued until the 1920s, with one of the final burials being that of Rosalia Lombardo. In all, the catacombs host nearly 8000 mummies. (See: Catacombe dei Cappuccini)

The most recent discovery of mummies in Italy came in 2010, when sixty mummified human remains were found in the crypt of the Conversion of St Paul church in Roccapelago di Pievepelago, Italy. Built in the 15th century as a cannon hold and later converted in the 16th century, the crypt had been sealed once it had reached capacity, leaving the bodies to be protected and preserved. The crypt was reopened during restoration work on the church, revealing the diverse array of mummies inside. The bodies were quickly moved to a museum for further study. [81]

North America

The mummies of North America are often steeped in controversy, as many of these bodies have been linked to still-existing native cultures. While the mummies provide a wealth of historically-significant data, native cultures and tradition often demands the remains be returned to their original resting places. This has led to many legal actions by Native American councils, leading to most museums keeping mummified remains out of the public eye. [82]


Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchi ("Long ago person found" in the Southern Tutchone language of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations), was found in August 1999 by three First Nations hunters at the edge of a glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada. According to the Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchi Project, the remains are the oldest well preserved mummy discovered in North America. [83] (The Spirit Cave mummy although not well preserved, is much older.) [84] Initial radiocarbon tests date the mummy to around 550 years-old. [83]


In 1972, eight remarkably preserved mummies were discovered at an abandoned Inuit settlement called Qilakitsoq, in Greenland. The "Greenland Mummies" consisted of a six-month-old baby, a four-year-old boy, and six women of various ages, who died around 500 years ago. Their bodies were naturally mummified by the sub-zero temperatures and dry winds in the cave in which they were found. [85] [86]


Intentional mummification in pre-Columbian Mexico was practiced by the Aztec culture. These bodies are collectively known as Aztec mummies. Genuine Aztec mummies were "bundled" in a woven wrap and often had their faces covered by a ceremonial mask. [87] Public knowledge of Aztec mummies increased due to traveling exhibits and museums in the 19th and 20th centuries, though these bodies were typically naturally desiccated remains and not actually the mummies associated with Aztec culture. (See: Aztec mummy)

Natural mummification has been known to occur in several places in Mexico this includes the mummies of Guanajuato. [88] A collection of these mummies, most of which date to the late 19th century, have been on display at El Museo de las Momias in the city of Guanajuato since 1970. The museum claims to have the smallest mummy in the world on display (a mummified fetus). [89] It was thought that minerals in the soil had the preserving effect, however it may rather be due to the warm, arid climate. [88] [90] Mexican mummies are also on display in the small town of Encarnación de Díaz, Jalisco.

United States

Spirit Cave Man was discovered in 1940 during salvage work prior to guano mining activity that was scheduled to begin in the area. The mummy is a middle-aged male, found completely dressed and lying on a blanket made of animal skin. Radiocarbon tests in the 1990s dated the mummy to being nearly 9,000 years old. The remains were held at the Nevada State Museum, though the local Native American community began petitioning to have the remains returned and reburied in 1995. [82] [84] [91] When the Bureau of Land Management did not repatriate the mummy in 2000, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe sued under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. After DNA sequencing determined that the remains were in fact related to modern Native Americans, they were repatriated to the tribe in 2016. [92]


Mummies from the Oceania are not limited only to Australia. Discoveries of mummified remains have also been located in New Zealand, and the Torres Strait, [93] though these mummies have been historically harder to examine and classify. [94] Prior to the 20th Century, most literature on mummification in the region was either silent or anecdotal. [95] However, the boom of interest generated by the scientific study of Egyptian mummification lead to more concentrated study of mummies in other cultures, including those of Oceania.


The aboriginal mummification traditions found in Australia are thought be related to those found in the Torres Strait islands, [95] the inhabitants of which achieved a high level of sophisticated mummification techniques (See:Torres Strait). Australian mummies lack some of the technical ability of the Torres Strait mummies, however much of the ritual aspects of the mummification process are similar. [95] Full-body mummification was achieved by these cultures, but not the level of artistic preservation as found on smaller islands. The reason for this seems to be for easier transport of bodies by more nomadic tribes. [95]

Torres Strait

The mummies of the Torres Strait have a considerably higher level of preservation technique as well as creativity compared to those found on Australia. [95] The process began with removal of viscera, after which the bodies were set in a seated position on a platform and either left to dry in the sun or smoked over a fire in order to aid in desiccation. In the case of smoking, some tribes would collect the fat that drained from the body to mix with ocher to create red paint that would then be smeared back on the skin of the mummy. [96] The mummies remained on the platforms, decorated with the clothing and jewelry they wore in life, before being buried. [95] [96]

New Zealand

Some Māori tribes from New Zealand would keep mummified heads as trophies from tribal warfare. [97] They are also known as Mokomokai. In the 19th Century, many of the trophies were acquired by Europeans who found the tattooed skin to be a phenomenal curiosity. Westerners began to offer valuable commodities in exchange for the uniquely tattooed mummified heads. The heads were later put on display in museums, 16 of which being housed across France alone. In 2010, the Rouen City Hall of France returned one of the heads to New Zealand, despite earlier protests by the Culture Ministry of France. [97]

There is also evidence that some Maori tribes may have practiced full-body mummification, though the practice is not thought to have been widespread. [98] The discussion of Maori mummification has been historically controversial, with some experts in past decades claiming that such mummies have never existed. [99] Contemporary science does now acknowledge the existence of full-body mummification in the culture. There is still controversy, however, as to the nature of the mummification process. Some bodies appear to be spontaneously created by the natural environment, while others exhibit signs of deliberate practices. General modern consensus tends to agree that there could be a mixture of both types of mummification, similar to that of the ancient Egyptian mummies. [98]

South America

The South American continent contains some of the oldest mummies in the world, both deliberate and accidental. [5] The bodies were preserved by the best agent for mummification: the environment. The Pacific coastal desert in Peru and Chile is one of the driest areas in the world and the dryness facilitated mummification. Rather than developing elaborate processes such as later-dynasty ancient Egyptians, the early South Americans often left their dead in naturally dry or frozen areas, though some did perform surgical preparation when mummification was intentional. [100] Some of the reasons for intentional mummification in South America include memorialization, immortalization, and religious offerings. [101] A large number of mummified bodies have been found in pre-Columbian cemeteries scattered around Peru. The bodies had often been wrapped for burial in finely-woven textiles. [102]

Chinchorro mummies

The Chinchorro mummies are the oldest intentionally prepared mummified bodies ever found. Beginning in 5th millennium BC and continuing for an estimated 3,500 years, [101] all human burials within the Chinchorro culture were prepared for mummification. The bodies were carefully prepared, beginning with removal of the internal organs and skin, before being left in the hot, dry climate of the Atacama Desert, which aided in desiccation. [101] A large number of Chinchorro mummies were also prepared by skilled artisans to be preserved in a more artistic fashion, though the purpose of this practice is widely debated. [101]

Inca mummies

Several naturally-preserved, unintentional mummies dating from the Incan period (1438–1532 AD) have been found in the colder regions of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. These are collectively known as "ice mummies". [103] The first Incan ice mummy was discovered in 1954 atop El Plomo Peak in Chile, after an eruption of the nearby volcano Sabancaya melted away ice that covered the body. [103] The Mummy of El Plomo was a male child who was presumed to be wealthy due to his well-fed bodily characteristics. He was considered to be the most well-preserved ice mummy in the world until the discovery of Mummy Juanita in 1995. [103]

Mummy Juanita was discovered near the summit of Ampato in the Peruvian section of the Andes mountains by archaeologist Johan Reinhard. [104] Her body had been so thoroughly frozen that it had not been desiccated much of her skin, muscle tissue, and internal organs retained their original structure. [103] She is believed to be a ritual sacrifice, due to the close proximity of her body to the Incan capital of Cusco, as well as the fact she was wearing highly intricate clothing to indicate her special social status. Several Incan ceremonial artifacts and temporary shelters uncovered in the surrounding area seem to support this theory. [103]

More evidence that the Inca left sacrificial victims to die in the elements, and later be unintentionally preserved, came in 1999 with the discovery of the Llullaillaco mummies on the border of Argentina and Chile. [104] The three mummies are children, two girls and one boy, who are thought to be sacrifices associated with the ancient ritual of qhapaq hucha. [105] Recent biochemical analysis of the mummies has revealed that the victims had consumed increasing quantities of alcohol and coca, possibly in the form of chicha, in the months leading up to sacrifice. [105] The dominant theory for the drugging reasons that, alongside ritual uses, the substances probably made the children more docile. Chewed coca leaves found inside the eldest child's mouth upon her discovery in 1999 supports this theory. [105]

The bodies of Inca emperors and wives were mummified after death. In 1533, the Spanish conquistadors of the Inca Empire viewed the mummies in the Inca capital of Cuzco. The mummies were displayed, often in lifelike positions, in the palaces of the deceased emperors and had a retinue of servants to care for them. The Spanish were impressed with the quality of the mummification which involved removal of the organs, embalming, and freeze-drying. [102]

The population revered the mummies of the Inca emperors. This reverence seemed idolatry to the Roman Catholic Spanish and in 1550 they confiscated the mummies. The mummies were taken to Lima where they were displayed in the San Andres Hospital. The mummies deteriorated in the humid climate of Lima and eventually they were either buried or destroyed by the Spanish. [106] [107]

An attempt to find the mummies of the Inca emperors beneath the San Andres hospital in 2001 was unsuccessful. The archaeologists found a crypt, but it was empty. Possibly the mummies had been removed when the building was repaired after an earthquake. [107]

Monks whose bodies remain incorrupt without any traces of deliberate mummification are venerated by some Buddhists who believe they successfully were able to mortify their flesh to death. Self-mummification was practiced until the late 1800s in Japan and has been outlawed since the early 1900s.

Many Mahayana Buddhist monks were reported to know their time of death and left their last testaments and their students accordingly buried them sitting in lotus position, put into a vessel with drying agents (such as wood, paper, or lime) and surrounded by bricks, to be exhumed later, usually after three years. The preserved bodies would then be decorated with paint and adorned with gold.

Bodies purported to be those of self-mummified monks are exhibited in several Japanese shrines, and it has been claimed that the monks, prior to their death, stuck to a sparse diet made up of salt, nuts, seeds, roots, pine bark, and urushi tea. [108]

Jeremy Bentham

In the 1830s, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, left instructions to be followed upon his death which led to the creation of a sort of modern-day mummy. He asked that his body be displayed to illustrate how the "horror at dissection originates in ignorance" once so displayed and lectured about, he asked that his body parts be preserved, including his skeleton (minus his skull, which despite being mis-preserved, was displayed beneath his feet until theft required it to be stored elsewhere), [109] which were to be dressed in the clothes he usually wore and "seated in a Chair usually occupied by me when living in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought". His body, outfitted with a wax head created because of problems preparing it as Bentham requested, is on open display in the University College London.

Vladimir Lenin

During the early 20th century, the Russian movement of Cosmism, as represented by Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov, envisioned scientific resurrection of dead people. The idea was so popular that, after Vladimir Lenin's death, Leonid Krasin and Alexander Bogdanov suggested to cryonically preserve his body and brain in order to revive him in the future. [110] Necessary equipment was purchased abroad, but for a variety of reasons the plan was not realized. [110] Instead his body was embalmed and placed on permanent exhibition in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow, where it is displayed to this day. The mausoleum itself was modeled by Alexey Shchusev on the Pyramid of Djoser and the Tomb of Cyrus.

Gottfried Knoche

In late 19th-century Venezuela, a German-born doctor named Gottfried Knoche conducted experiments in mummification at his laboratory in the forest near La Guaira. He developed an embalming fluid (based on an aluminum chloride compound) that mummified corpses without having to remove the internal organs. The formula for his fluid was never revealed and has not been discovered. Most of the several dozen mummies created with the fluid (including himself and his immediate family) have been lost or were severely damaged by vandals and looters.


In 1975, an esoteric organization by the name of Summum introduced "Modern Mummification", a service that utilizes modern techniques along with aspects of ancient methods of mummification. The first person to formally undergo Summum's process of modern mummification was the founder of Summum, Summum Bonum Amen Ra, who died in January 2008. [111] Summum is currently considered to be the only "commercial mummification business" in the world. [112]

Alan Billis

In 2010, a team led by forensic archaeologist Stephen Buckley mummified Alan Billis using techniques based on 19 years of research of 18th-dynasty Egyptian mummification. The process was filmed for television, for the documentary Mummifying Alan: Egypt's Last Secret. [113] Billis made the decision to allow his body to be mummified after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2009. His body currently resides at London's Gordon Museum. [114]


Plastination is a technique used in anatomy to conserve bodies or body parts. The water and fat are replaced by certain plastics, yielding specimens that can be touched, do not smell or decay, and even retain most microscopic properties of the original sample.

The technique was invented by Gunther von Hagens when working at the anatomical institute of the Heidelberg University in 1978. Von Hagens has patented the technique in several countries and is heavily involved in its promotion, especially as the creator and director of the Body Worlds traveling exhibitions, [115] exhibiting plastinated human bodies internationally. He also founded and directs the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg.

More than 40 institutions worldwide have facilities for plastination, mainly for medical research and study, and most affiliated to the International Society for Plastination. [116]

In the Middle Ages, based on a mistranslation from the Arabic term for bitumen, it was thought that mummies possessed healing properties. As a result, it became common practice to grind Egyptian mummies into a powder to be sold and used as medicine. When actual mummies became unavailable, the sun-desiccated corpses of criminals, slaves and suicidal people were substituted by mendacious merchants. [117] Mummies were said to have a lot of healing properties. Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle recommended them for healing bruises and preventing bleeding. The trade in mummies seems to have been frowned upon by Turkish authorities who ruled Egypt – several Egyptians were imprisoned for boiling mummies to make oil in 1424. However, mummies were in high demand in Europe and it was possible to buy them for the right amount of money. John Snaderson, an English tradesman who visited Egypt in the 16th century shipped six hundred pounds of mummy back to England. [118]

The practice developed into a wide-scale business that flourished until the late 16th century. Two centuries ago, mummies were still believed to have medicinal properties to stop bleeding, and were sold as pharmaceuticals in powdered form as in mellified man. [119] Artists also made use of Egyptian mummies a brownish pigment known as mummy brown, based on mummia (sometimes called alternatively caput mortuum, Latin for death's head), which was originally obtained by grinding human and animal Egyptian mummies. It was most popular in the 17th century, but was discontinued in the early 19th century when its composition became generally known to artists who replaced the said pigment by a totally different blend -but keeping the original name, mummia or mummy brown-yielding a similar tint and based on ground minerals (oxides and fired earths) and or blends of powdered gums and oleoresins (such as myrrh and frankincense) as well as ground bitumen. These blends appeared on the market as forgeries of powdered mummy pigment but were ultimately considered as acceptable replacements, once antique mummies were no longer permitted to be destroyed. [120] Many thousands of mummified cats were also sent from Egypt to England to be processed for use in fertilizer. [121]

During the 19th century, following the discovery of the first tombs and artifacts in Egypt, egyptology was a huge fad in Europe, especially in Victorian England. European aristocrats would occasionally entertain themselves by purchasing mummies, having them unwrapped, and holding observation sessions. [122] [119] The pioneer of this kind of entertainment in Britain was Thomas Pettigrew known as "Mummy" Pettigrew due to his work. [123] Such unrolling sessions destroyed hundreds of mummies, because the exposure to the air caused them to disintegrate.

The use of mummies as fuel for locomotives was documented by Mark Twain (likely as a joke or humor), [124] but the truth of the story remains debatable. During the American Civil War, mummy-wrapping linens were said to have been used to manufacture paper. [124] [125] Evidence for the reality of these claims is still equivocal. [126] [127] Researcher Ben Radford reports that, in her book The Mummy Congress, Heather Pringle writes: "No mummy expert has ever been able to authenticate the story . Twain seems to be the only published source – and a rather suspect one at that". Pringle also writes that there is no evidence for the "mummy paper" either. Radford also says that many journalists have not done a good job with their research, and while it is true that mummies were often not shown respect in the 1800s, there is no evidence for this rumor. [128]

While mummies were used in medicine, some researchers have brought into question these other uses such as making paper and paint, fueling locomotives and fertilizing land. [129]

The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine

The last line of a 17th century poem by John Donne prompted Louise Noble’s quest. “Women,” the line read, are not only “Sweetness and wit,” but “mummy, possessed.”

Sweetness and wit, sure. But mummy? In her search for an explanation, Noble, a lecturer of English at the University of New England in Australia, made a surprising discovery: That word recurs throughout the literature of early modern Europe, from Donne’s “Love’s Alchemy” to Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” because mummies and other preserved and fresh human remains were a common ingredient in the medicine of that time. In short: Not long ago, Europeans were cannibals.

Noble’s new book, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, and another by Richard Sugg of England’s University of Durham, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, reveal that for several hundred years, peaking in the 16th and 17th centuries, many Europeans, including royalty, priests and scientists, routinely ingested remedies containing human bones, blood and fat as medicine for everything from headaches to epilepsy. There were few vocal opponents of the practice, even though cannibalism in the newly explored Americas was reviled as a mark of savagery. Mummies were stolen from Egyptian tombs, and skulls were taken from Irish burial sites. Gravediggers robbed and sold body parts.

“The question was not, ‘Should you eat human flesh?’ but, ‘What sort of flesh should you eat?’ ” says Sugg. The answer, at first, was Egyptian mummy, which was crumbled into tinctures to stanch internal bleeding. But other parts of the body soon followed. Skull was one common ingredient, taken in powdered form to cure head ailments. Thomas Willis, a 17th-century pioneer of brain science, brewed a drink for apoplexy, or bleeding, that mingled powdered human skull and chocolate. And King Charles II of England sipped “The King’s Drops,” his personal tincture, containing human skull in alcohol. Even the toupee of moss that grew over a buried skull, called Usnea, became a prized additive, its powder believed to cure nosebleeds and possibly epilepsy. Human fat was used to treat the outside of the body. German doctors, for instance, prescribed bandages soaked in it for wounds, and rubbing fat into the skin was considered a remedy for gout.

Blood was procured as fresh as possible, while it was still thought to contain the vitality of the body. This requirement made it challenging to acquire. The 16th century German-Swiss physician Paracelsus believed blood was good for drinking, and one of his followers even suggested taking blood from a living body. While that doesn’t seem to have been common practice, the poor, who couldn’t always afford the processed compounds sold in apothecaries, could gain the benefits of cannibal medicine by standing by at executions, paying a small amount for a cup of the still-warm blood of the condemned. “The executioner was considered a big healer in Germanic countries,” says Sugg. “He was a social leper with almost magical powers.” For those who preferred their blood cooked, a 1679 recipe from a Franciscan apothecary describes how to make it into marmalade.

Rub fat on an ache, and it might ease your pain. Push powdered moss up your nose, and your nosebleed will stop. If you can afford the King’s Drops, the float of alcohol probably helps you forget you’re depressed—at least temporarily. In other words, these medicines may have been incidentally helpful—even though they worked by magical thinking, one more clumsy search for answers to the question of how to treat ailments at a time when even the circulation of blood was not yet understood.

However, consuming human remains fit with the leading medical theories of the day. “It emerged from homeopathic ideas,” says Noble. “It’s 'like cures like.' So you eat ground-up skull for pains in the head.” Or drink blood for diseases of the blood.

Another reason human remains were considered potent was because they were thought to contain the spirit of the body from which they were taken. “Spirit” was considered a very real part of physiology, linking the body and the soul. In this context, blood was especially powerful. “They thought the blood carried the soul, and did so in the form of vaporous spirits,” says Sugg. The freshest blood was considered the most robust. Sometimes the blood of young men was preferred, sometimes, that of virginal young women. By ingesting corpse materials, one gains the strength of the person consumed. Noble quotes Leonardo da Vinci on the matter: “We preserve our life with the death of others. In a dead thing insensate life remains which, when it is reunited with the stomachs of the living, regains sensitive and intellectual life.”

Egyptians embalming a corpse. (Bettmann / Corbis)

The idea also wasn’t new to the Renaissance, just newly popular. Romans drank the blood of slain gladiators to absorb the vitality of strong young men. Fifteenth-century philosopher Marsilio Ficino suggested drinking blood from the arm of a young person for similar reasons. Many healers in other cultures, including in ancient Mesopotamia and India, believed in the usefulness of human body parts, Noble writes.

Even at corpse medicine’s peak, two groups were demonized for related behaviors that were considered savage and cannibalistic. One was Catholics, whom Protestants condemned for their belief in transubstantiation, that is, that the bread and wine taken during Holy Communion were, through God’s power, changed into the body and blood of Christ. The other group was Native Americans negative stereotypes about them were justified by the suggestion that these groups practiced cannibalism. “It looks like sheer hypocrisy,” says Beth A. Conklin, a cultural and medical anthropologist at Vanderbilt University who has studied and written about cannibalism in the Americas. People of the time knew that corpse medicine was made from human remains, but through some mental transubstantiation of their own, those consumers refused to see the cannibalistic implications of their own practices.

Conklin finds a distinct difference between European corpse medicine and the New World cannibalism she has studied. “The one thing that we know is that almost all non-Western cannibal practice is deeply social in the sense that the relationship between the eater and the one who is eaten matters,” says Conklin. “In the European process, this was largely erased and made irrelevant. Human beings were reduced to simple biological matter equivalent to any other kind of commodity medicine.”

The hypocrisy was not entirely missed. In Michel de Montaigne’s 16th century essay “On the Cannibals,” for instance, he writes of cannibalism in Brazil as no worse than Europe’s medicinal version, and compares both favorably to the savage massacres of religious wars.

As science strode forward, however, cannibal remedies died out. The practice dwindled in the 18th century, around the time Europeans began regularly using forks for eating and soap for bathing. But Sugg found some late examples of corpse medicine: In 1847, an Englishman was advised to mix the skull of a young woman with treacle (molasses) and feed it to his daughter to cure her epilepsy. (He obtained the compound and administered it, as Sugg writes, but “allegedly without effect.”) A belief that a magical candle made from human fat, called a “thieves candle,” could stupefy and paralyze a person lasted into the 1880s. Mummy was sold as medicine in a German medical catalog at the beginning of the 20th century. And in 1908, a last known attempt was made in Germany to swallow blood at the scaffold.

This is not to say that we have moved on from using one human body to heal another. Blood transfusions, organ transplants and skin grafts are all examples of a modern form of medicine from the body. At their best, these practices are just as rich in poetic possibility as the mummies found in Donne and Shakespeare, as blood and body parts are given freely from one human to another. But Noble points to their darker incarnation, the global black market trade in body parts for transplants. Her book cites news reports on the theft of organs of prisoners executed in China, and, closer to home, of a body-snatching ring in New York City that stole and sold body parts from the dead to medical companies. It’s a disturbing echo of the past. Says Noble, “It’s that idea that once a body is dead you can do what you want with it.”

Waco Mom

In our homeschool we often combined history and science. Here is a lesson, and experiement, we did about the Science of making mummies. Even if you're not homeschooling this would make a fun summertime activity for kids.

For this lesson we used the unit study "Science of Ancient Egypt: Mummification" (which was part of a larger bundle on Ancient Egypt by Dr. Dave's science which I bought after falling in love with his free sample unit on The Nile). We had already read about mummification in various local library books about Egypt, but this covered some things that the other books didn't about the science involved in the process (like how microorganisms are involved in breaking down bodies, and how Natron, the salt mixture the Egyptians used in mummification, prevented these from growing by removing moisture).

While the Unit Study was labled for 4th - 7th graders, we did this when my son was a 1st grader with a Kindergarten sized attention span. I felt like the material was engaging and kid friendly enough for him to handle even though it was meant for older kids. especially since he loves science. (And I was right)

Some tweaking was involved though. Because of his age I didn't try to cover the whole unit, since I knew that would be an attention span stretch. In stead I used a couple of pages from it for this lesson, and I did what I always do. added some tactiles and visuals, and of course, lots of questions.

First, we reviewed Egyptian mummification with this video.

Then, before we dug into the text, I took my son outside to see something I knew had been sitting out by the fence in our yard. the remains of a dead bird. I knew it would be a great example of what happens to an animal after it dies. and how microorganisms take part in that process (though I'm sure ants took a part too).

I pointed out the bones and the beak and the feather, and asked my son "What do you think happened to the rest of it, all the bird's muscles and stuff?"

He gave a guess about the bird going to heaven (theology lessons pop up when least expected, don't they?).

"Well, the Bible doesn't say whether birds go to Heaven. Some people think they do, and some people don't, but we don't know. But when people go to Heaven it says God gives us new bodies. so our old bodies stay here when we die. So even if animals go to Heaven it doesn't mean their bodies do too. So what do you think happened to the bird's body?"

I let him give a couple more guesses and then said, "Lets go inside and find out!" That got him interested and he listened intently as I read the whole page in the unit study on "Preserving the Body," which talked about how microorganisms break up and consume dead things and how the mummification process prevents that.

At that my son expressed some fears about microorganisms eating him. so I told him about how when we're living that our cells have ways of fighting bad bacteria and germs, and that other bacteria lives in our body and doesn't hurt us. But when someone or something dies than its cells die too, and so the microorganisms then start to eat the dead cells.

For older kids, you can find a more detailed answer to that question here. The video below doesn't directly answer that question, but does describe the process of decomposition. I don't suggest this very young children because some of the illustrations could be scary for them, but it would be great for most older kids. After minute 2:27 it talks about the problem of burial space/cost and some solutions, and you can decide whether you want to share that or stop the video there, since that isn't really as relevant to the topic.

After reading the "Preserving the Body" section, we skipped the next page ("Salt) to come back to after we had done our egg experiment (as it gives away the end), and read the first paragraph of "The Chemistry of Salt." This first paragraph talks about how salt is a mixture and how there are different kinds of salt (even baking soda is, chemically, a salt). So, I showed him some.

We looked at regular salt, coarse ground sea salt, Himalayan sea salt, Epson salts, and baking soda. I left these out on a dish for him touch and play with while I read the next paragraph about natron. When we got to the last paragraph about where the Egyptians got natron (in the Natron Valley, in the Nile Delta), we looked it up on our map.

Egg Mummy Experiment
After that we did an experiment where we mummified a hard boiled egg. I've seen this done with apples too, or a whole chicken. Several day into our experiment, we read the page on "Salt" that we had earlier skipped, after making guesses as to why our egg had shrunk and hardened.

  1. Hard boil an egg (or two if you want to have a "control" egg. see section below). Peel off the shell.
  2. Measure the egg with flexible tape ruler and write down results. (Dr. Dave's science has a supplementary printable resource that has charts you can use to record and graph these, but it costs extra, and it would not be too hard to make your own chart.)
  3. Weigh egg and write down results.
  4. Mix an equal amount of salt and baking soda to make an approximation of natron (you can just use salt in stead). enough to cover an egg.
  5. Put the egg in a cup or open container and cover completely with natron mixture.
  6. Uncover egg and repeat steps 1 - 3 every day for several weeks until the weight and size remains constant.

Below are our pictures of our egg mummy (left) and control egg (right). OK, yes, that first picture is the same egg reversed. cause I didn't take a picture of the mummified one before we put it in the salt. It's not consecutive days because we didn't take a picture every day (the days shown are as follows: Day 1, Day 2, Day 5, Day 9, Day 12), and the sizes are not completely to scale, though I did try to show how they shrunk (it was a little more dramatic than the pictures here shows, actually). But you can still get the general idea.


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