Mummification: Definition, Purpose & Process

Instructor: Kathleen Halecki

Kathleen Halecki possesses a B.A. and M.A. in history, and a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on early modern Scotland. She has been teaching for over a decade in subjects such as history, philosophy and anthropology.

In this lesson, we will explore the mummification process in detail from the meaning of the word mummification, the purpose for mummification, and the lengthy process required to achieve the perfect Egyptian mummy.


The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb! Dawn of the Mummy! The Mummy's Shroud! All of these are titles for movies involving Egyptian mummies which have long held our fascination in pop culture. We all love a great mummy movie, but what really goes on behind all of those bandages and how exactly does one become a mummy? It is not as easy as it looks to stay wrapped up for thousands of years and keep it together, so let us begin by looking at the definition of mummification.


Definition of a Mummy

Mummification is the process by which the body is preserved. There are mummies around the world, but the ancient Egyptians were the ones who created an elaborate procedure in order to ensure the preservation of the body. Early on in their history, Egyptian would have buried their dead in the desert, resulting in natural mummification. The secret to mummification is to be sure moisture is removed so that bacteria does not decay the body. Between the hot air and sand of the desert, the body would become dehydrated causing a mummy to be formed. Sometime around 3,000 BCE is when scholars believe the initial mummification process began.


The Egyptians were very religious and like many other cultures, they believed in an afterlife. For Egyptians, this meant an arduous journey before being judged in the Hall of Two Truths by the god Osiris and having their heart weighed against the feather of truth, or Maat. A big part of that journey meant making sure their physical body was kept in good shape so that their soul could move back and forth.

The Process of Mummification

The actual process was very detailed and required the skill of an embalmer who was a priest. The members of high society, such as the pharaoh, could be ensured of quality materials. You can tell a high-ranking mummy by their wrappings which would be made of the best linen money could buy. The embalmer would take their time to be sure the process was not rushed. It is estimated that that mummification took seventy days. There were different methods, but what is termed ''classic'' mummification is usually what we think of when it comes to mummifying the dead. Right after death, the body would be washed with water from the Nile River to begin the lengthy process.

Step 1: Remove the brain. This was a delicate procedure in which a tool resembling a knitting needle would be thrust up into the left nostril where it would whisk brain matter around so it could be pulled out. Once the brain was gone, a resin would fill in the cavity so that the skull would not collapse. The resin was kept in place by plugging the nostrils with strips of linen.

Step 2: Remove internal organs. This would be the squishy stuff that could cause bacteria to grow if left intact. An incision was made on the left side, and the liver, lungs, intestines, and stomach would be pulled out. Later, these would be embalmed separately in something called canopic jars. The heart was considered very important and necessary for the afterlife, so that would stay inside the body. These practices did change over time; a mummy discovered from the first century A.D. still had lungs, but the heart was removed.


Step 3: Wash and dry. Once organs were removed the body would be washed again with water and possibly palm wine. Small bags of natron, a naturally occurring substance found in Egypt which resembles salt, was placed inside the body, and then the entire body was covered on the outside. This would be repeated at regular intervals to dry out the body.


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