Mummification; A Funerary Technology of An Ancient Civilization

Anthropologists and historical scholars alike credit the Egyptians with the origination and refinement of the funerary technology known as mummification; despite other discoveries of mummification from other cultures around the world, i.e. Peru, Guanche mummies in England, and the Canary Islands (1). To understand why mummification originated with the Egyptians and the process and refinement as a technology we first must examine Egyptian Cosmogonies.
Cosmogonies are narratives, or stories about how everything in existence came into being; also referred to as creation myths (4). To early cultures in the Mesopotamian region of northern Africa, creation myths provided a foundation for religion, cultural morays, and in many respects an ancient “Mediterranean Family Tree”, if you will. These cosmogonies established religious directive for the polytheist societies of the time; crafting a fundamental means to worship many gods in a way that offered answers to philosophic questions, such as, “Is there an after-life?” Egyptians believed that death offered so much more than the act of dying; provided, the individual be of high social status, they have accumulated wealth, and that they believe they can influence and actively participate in the final outcome. Egyptians understood death as something to be managed and in turn life could be restored. Guided by their dedication and worship to the god of death, Osiris, ancient Egyptians turned to The Osiris Myth to choose from a litany of thousands of magical spells, hymns, and epitaphs to create an individualized, custom Pyramid Text, Coffin Text, or Book of the Dead (4).
Of parallel, if not paramount, importance to Egyptian funerary practice was the preservation of the body to the best of their capabilities; a procedural technique called embalming. But through the translation of Egyptian funerary texts and narratives by Greek and Roman authors we now know that embalming of the body was more than a series of physical and chemical applications, i.e. mummification, designed to minimize or arrest the decomposition of tissue. Rather, embalming was the mutual employment of traditional tissue preservation practices plus ritualistic magical spells and religious hymns and litanies recited by an Egyptian priest (3) (4). Through the many spells, epitaphs and hymns of The Osiris Myth, Egyptians came to understand that the soul and the body must be kept fully functional in order to navigate the kingdom of death. The religious rituals applied to the soul and the mortuary practice of mummification preserved the body.
Mummification began with the descendant lying face up on a flat stone in the mortuary. Mortuaries were typically built in catacombs or subterranean crypts were cool and often arid air conditions were present, facilitating desiccation, or water loss of the body tissues. Removal of tissue water content is essential to successful mummification. Next, the abdominal viscera and organs are removed, washed and desiccated; then individually wrapped in small packages for return to the abdominal cavity at the final stage of preparation, wrapping of the body in linen. Next, the brain is liquefied and removed from the skull using a special implement and one of many possible entrance/exit sites created in the floor of the caldarium. At this point the abdominal cavity is washed thoroughly and dried; the body is then flexed into a fetal or sitting position and lowered into a concentrated salt bath, in a large jar, with the head exposed. The degree of desiccation and the relative time frame to complete this is directly proportional to the ratio of skin surface area to the underlying body volume. The desiccation process is complete when the epidermis of the skin easily epilates. At this point the body is removed from the salt bath, rinsed and dried thoroughly with meticulous detail paid to replacing any finger nails or toe nails that have unintentionally fallen loose and coating the abdominal cavity with a mixture of oils and fragrances. Next, the small packages of abdominal organs are placed in the abdominal cavity and the wound is traditionally closed with a plate of wax (1). Finally, the body is coated in a mixture of oil and fragrance, wrapped twice with long tapes of linen and then covered with a mixture of oil, fragrances and resins. This final wrapping ensures the maintenance of tissue desiccation and to prevent insects from desecrating the body (2) (1).
When we consider technology as a construct our attention tends to turn to the more modern technological advancements we surround ourselves with each day. Despite their seductive allure, today’s technologies may be purely for profit; but, a closer look at some of man’s ancient technologies often uncovers a collaboration between religious ideals and rituals, mythological themes, human necessity, and early applied science. Egypt’s funerary technology of mummification is one such early civilization technology that is a complimentary blend of mythology and early applied science. Not readily apparent in the technology of mummification are the religious ideals and rituals; not to mention, the human necessity inherent in the mythology. Ancient Egyptians firmly believed that by properly managing death, in turn life could be restored.
1) Dawson, Warren R. “Contributions to the History of Mummification.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of                                         Medicine  20.6  (1927): 832–854. Print.
2) Mummies. Lynnerup, Niels. American Journal of Physical Anthropology vol. 134 issue S45 2007. p. 162 – 190
3) ASSMANN, JAN, and DAVID LORTON. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca; London: Cornell University                              Press, 2005. Print.
4) Lopez-Ruiz, Carolina. Gods, Heroes, and Monsters. New York, NY. Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 23 – 27. Print


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