The Mummification Process

Mummification is the process of preserving the body after death by deliberately drying or embalming flesh. This typically involved removing moisture from a deceased body and using chemicals or natural preservatives, such as resin, to desiccate the flesh and organs. Ancient Egyptians loved life and believed in immortality. This motivated them to make early plans for their death.

While this may seem contradictory, for Egyptians, it made perfect sense: They believed that life would continue after death and that they would still need their physical bodies. Thus, preserving bodies in as lifelike a way as possible was the goal of mummification, and essential to the continuation of life.

The Mummification Process. Illustration by: Christian Jegou
The Mummification Process. Illustration by: Christian Jegou

A historical artwork of ancient Egyptians removing abdominal organs and gut before embalming. After death the ancient Egyptians would immerse the body in bicarbonate of soda, inject the arteries with balsams, and remove the contents of the torso (as seen here) and replace them with bituminous and aromatic substances.

Finally the body was wrapped in cloths (as seen blow). When a king was mummified a death mask (center left) made of gold and lapis lazuli was also made and placed on the mummy’s head. The process was done to preserve the body. This kept a person’s life-force (known as Ka) intact according to the ancient Egyptian belief.

The Mummification Process
The Mummification Process. Illustration by: Christian Jegou

What is Mummification?

Mummification process is believed to have taken around 70 days, accompanied by many rituals. The organs of the deceased were carefully removed through a small incision (10 cm) in the left side of the body and preserved in canopic jars. The body was then dried in sodium nitrate, or nitrate salt brought from Wadi El Natrun, for about 40 days, and finally wrapped in bandages of linen. Magical amulets were placed within the wrappings on various parts of the body to protect the deceased. The family then received the body and placed it in a coffin for burial.

The mummification processes used by the ancient Egyptians are known to us through descriptions left by Herodotus (5th century bc) in Book II of his Histories. The longest and most costly procedure required removal of the internal organs from the body with the liver, lungs, intestines, and stomach being embalmed separately. The brain was extracted with a hook inserted through the nasal cavity while the other organs were removed through a cut made in the lower part of the stomach. Next the entire body was cleaned and filled with bandages soaked in mineral substances and the cut was sewn up and protected by a plaque.

Anubis attending the mummy of Sennedjem
Anubis attending the mummy of Sennedjem, wall painting from the Tomb of Sennedjem (TT1). New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty, ca. 1292-1189 BC. Deir el-Medina, West Thebes.

The ancient Egyptians not only applied embalming to dead humans but also to many animals (cats, dogs, birds, snakes and crocodiles) for votives and ritual purposes. The god Anubis also known as Inpu (the jackal) was representing the god of death, embalming and mummification.

“Today, Egyptian practices for death and the afterlife are intimately associated with mummies, which have both fascinated and terrified people for centuries. In countless movies, these preserved dead bodies from ancient times are often shown to be mystical creatures that come back from the dead to exact revenge. In the same vein, over the centuries, Egyptian society suggested that there was a tomb curse or “curse of the pharaohs” that ensured anyone who disturbed their tombs, including thieves and archaeologists, would suffer bad luck or even death.

In reality, Egyptian mummies have been preserved throughout time due to the meticulous process that created them, and while Egyptian mummies are the most famous, there are preserved bodies from all around the world from across history. Some of these mummies were accidents of nature, while others were more intentional, preserved through human intervention. In Egypt, the first mummies seem to have been natural, but after their discovery, mummification became a time-honored tradition in this ancient civilization.”

The Mummies of Ancient Egypt: The History and Legacy of the Egyptians’ Mummification Process, Charles River Editors, 2020

Mummification in ancient Egypt

It was in ancient Egypt, however, that mummification reached its greatest elaboration. The first Egyptian mummies appear in the archaeological record at approximately 3500 BC. By the time of the Old Kingdom, or Age of the Pyramids (ca. 2686-2181 BC), mummification was well entrenched in Egyptian society. It became a mainstay during subsequent periods, reaching particular heights of sophistication during the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1070 BC).

The mummification in ancient Egypt was typically reserved for the elite of society such as royalty, noble families, government officials and the wealthy. Common people were rarely mummified because the practice was expensive. The ancient Egyptians believed that mummification would guarantee that the soul of the buried person would enter the afterlife.

Recipes for Ancient Egyptian Mummification