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Image depicting the mummification process entitled Le pharaon Tout-Ank-Amon, by Yvonne Girault and illustrated in 1938 by Simone Bouglé, from the collection Les Livres roses pour la jeunesse. (Public domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: Mummification Had Nothing to Do With Preservation, Claims Exhibit

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For over a century archaeologists and teachers have taught students that ancient Egyptians mummified corpses to “preserve” their bodies. Now, a disruptive new museum exhibit in the UK is set to reveal this as an entirely wrong and dogmatic assumption.

A quick Google search on the word “ mummification” took me to an article from the Smithsonian which explained that mummification was a “method of embalming.” The article clarified that the act of removing organs left only a dried corpse that would “not easily decay.”

All of this information suggests the process of mummification was specifically orchestrated to slow down the process of decay, but new research will soon show that this “was not” the primary purpose for mummifying bodies in ancient Egypt . Why then did Egyptian priests remove organs and then embalm their dead?

Mummification Guided the Deceased Towards Divinity

A Live Science article explained that a team of researchers from the University of Manchester claim a forthcoming museum exhibition demonstrates how mummification “was never meant to preserve bodies.”

The Golden Mummies of Egypt exhibit opens at the University of Manchester Manchester Museum beginning Feb. 18, 2023, at which time the public will see how the burial techniques of ancient Egypt had nothing to do with preservation and all to do with “guiding the deceased toward divinity.”

Campbell Price, the Manchester Museum’s curator of Egypt and Sudan, told Live Science that their teams new understanding about mummification in ancient Egypt “upends much of what is taught to students about mummies.” So where did all this nonsense about preserving bodies so that their souls were safe in the afterlife come from?

Image depicting the mummification process entitled Le pharaon Tout-Ank-Amon, by Yvonne Girault and illustrated in 1938 by Simone Bouglé, from the collection Les Livres roses pour la jeunesse. (Public domain )

A Fishy Reason Indeed: Victorian Assumptions About Mummification

Price contended that the whole idea of ancient Egyptians preserving bodies was “misconceived” by Victorian archaeologists. The curator argued that because Victorians themselves preserved fish in salt for future use, they wrongly assumed that ancient Egyptians were attempting to preserve the bodies of their dead in salt.

Today’s technology has determined that the substance used by ancient Egyptians in the mummification process was not actually salt, but natron – Na 2(CO3)10(H2O). This hydrated sodium carbonate mineral was mined in Egypt from dry lake beds near the Nile.

While natron was used in food, medicine and as a ritual offering to the gods in ancient Egypt it was also applied to bodies in mummification as a drying agent. But why would ancient Egyptians have gone to all the trouble of drying corpses if not to preserve them?

A scholar and/or physician carrying a cane peering at an Egyptian mummy through a pair of eyeglasses. Gouache drawing by Thomas Rowlandson. (Public domain)

A scholar and/or physician carrying a cane peering at an Egyptian mummy through a pair of eyeglasses. Gouache drawing by Thomas Rowlandson. ( Public domain )

It Seems They Were Making “Godly Beings”

The new exhibition will show how the application of natron to corpses was about “making the body divine and into a godly being.” The reason for the misinterpretation was because just like the ancient Egyptians, so too did Victorian researchers believe the body was required in the thereafter.

It didn’t help that there was a “biomedical obsession that was born from Victorian ideas about needing your body complete in the afterlife,” Price added. Essentially, this is a case of people projecting modern values onto past cultures and failing to ask, “but what if they were different from us, entirely?”

Digging for Deeper Meaning in Mummification

Campbell Price also told Live Science that the act of removing the internal organs “was not to help preserve corpses.” He said the process had “a somewhat deeper meaning.” Again, Price clarified that this medical procedure was performed so that the deceased were relieved of their human mechanics, signifying they had reached “divine” status. In Price’s own words, the organs were removed because the dead person had been “transformed.”

Supporting these new ideas about mummification in ancient Egyptian culture the researcher pointed towards the elaborate mummy paintings that were painted on coffins, and also towards death masks . For Price, the former “reveals identity,” while the latter “obscures your identification.” In other words, they were used to offer “idealized imagery in the divine form.” Therefore, according to this interpretation, mummification had nothing to do with the preservation of dead bodies.

Top image: A golden mummy from Manchester Museum. Source: Allan Gluck / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Ashley Cowie

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