Overshadowing everything else in Egyptian life was the desire to live forever. Egyptians believed in an eternity after they had died.
Ancient Egyptians believed that every person, whether a pharaoh or a slave, had a two-part body. To them, each person had a soul, called a ba and also an invisible twin of the person, known as a ka. Many Egyptian paintings and sculptures display this thinking. The ba is often represented by a bird with a human head, symbolising the flight of the soul while numerous paintings depict the ka as double images of a person, usually in the traditional side view.
The ancients believed that when a person died their ba and ka were released from the body and lived in the tomb. The person’s soul would remain in touch with the deceased’s family and friends while the twin would travel back and forth from the tomb to the other world of the gods. However, for a person to be able to live on forever in the afterlife their ba and ka had to be able to recognise the body or they would not know to whom they were to return to. Hence, there was a requirement for the body to be very well preserved or mummified in order that it remained recognisable.
Remaining Recognisable after Death
Mummification is a manipulated form of fossilising a body. Like a piece of petrified wood, the early process was performed naturally. A mummy is a corpse that has been allowed to dry out in such a way that it preserves its shape and will not decay. The earliest Egyptians to be mummified were simply buried in the dry desert sands. These conditions were highly suitable for rapidly drying out the body and preserving it as hard as stone.
As Egypt’s empire flourished burials of the elite became more and more elaborate. Bodies were wrapped with animal skins or carefully shrouded with finely woven cloth. Underground pits were dug in the sand and lined with timber or rocks to form a primitive tomb. Sometimes natural caves were used. Bodies that failed to be buried directly in the hot sand did not dry quickly enough to preserve them and they decayed due to dampness and bacteria.
Perfecting the Process
The ability to embalm the body became a highly desirable and learned profession of ancient Egypt. The skill to embalm, or mummify, meant that bodies could then be placed into massive, elaborate tombs without decaying.
Only the wealthy could afford the expensive process of being fully embalmed. Royalty and nobility had rich burials but the pharaohs of Egypt, who were believed to have become gods upon their death, were the subjects of special attention and buried in magnificent splendour.
Mummification became possible due to the discovery of the properties of natron, a white mineral salt mined from the dry riverbed Wadi Natrum near the River Nile. It is a composite chemical containing sodium bicarbonate, soda ash, sodium chloride (table salt) and other trace elements. Its antiseptic properties destroyed the flesh-decaying bacteria that decomposed bodies and dried out the flesh in much the same way as Palma ham is made. Natron, as it was known, became the common Latin word meaning sodium thus the unusual symbol Na for sodium on chemistry’s periodic table.
A Seventy Day Procedure
The mummification process was long and involved. It required many people, each performing a specialist task.
- For its 70 day ordeal the body was first taken to a special embalmers workshop, erected near to the tomb of the final resting place, to await its preparation.
- The body was placed on a sloped table with the feet being at the lower end. Embalmers made careful incisions in the side of the body and removed the internal organs. The brain was removed through the nose using a long metal hook. Religious priests officiated over each stage of the embalming.
- The major organs were preserved in natron and each one was placed in its own special jar later to be placed in the tomb alongside the body.
- The heart was not removed as this was thought to be the essence of life. However, there are many instances of the heart being replaced by a small, carved stone known as a scarab.
- Packages of wrapped natron were stuffed back into the organless cavity and further applications of the salt were rubbed over the outer body. The salt drew fluids from the body and these ran down the slanted bed dripping into a collection jar. Half way through the process the first internal natron packs were replaced by fresh ones.
- By now the body had dried and shrunk a little. The salt was brushed away and the skin washed by dab sponging. Fine camel hair brushes applied spicy oils and fragrances. The natron packs in the head and body were replaced with bags of fragrant oils and spices, and the side cut was sewn together.
- The eyes were closed and the nostrils were plugged with beeswax. The arms of the body were crossed over each other and all fingernails were capped with gold leaf. Further adornment depended upon wealth. Extra gold was added including jewellery and precious stones.
- The final step was carefully binding the body with narrow strips of cloth. The long pieces of linen were layered and glued together with a resin like solution. After twenty layers the body was entirely cocooned in what was like a fibreglass case.
The Portrait Mask
All that remained was to place the heavily ornate portrait mask over the head. These were often of gold inlaid with precious stones and many bore the protruding, plaited beard of Osiris the god of life, death and fertility.
The completed mummy was placed into a shaped plaster coffin. This inner coffin was then put into another plaster and timber coffin and painted with pictures and hieroglyphs.
Eternity with the Gods
Finally, the body was ready for burial. A lavish funeral procession ended with the mummy being placed in a grand tomb surrounded by the jars of the organs as if guarding the body. The entrance was sealed by closing all passageways with stone walls. The mourners left the site believing that the mummy was in its final resting place ready to enjoy a new eternal life with the gods.