Friday, February 23, 2007

Origins and Techniques

The purpose of mummification to the ancient Egyptians was as a preservation method. During pre-dynastic times Egyptian people used to bury their dead in the desert, in sand pits, where the desert naturally dehydrated the remains, causing the bodies to mummify naturally. However, they noticed that often the deceased would end up being dug up by wild animals; such as jackals, and so they began lining the pits in bricks and laying the deceased upon woven mats; later wrapping the bodies in the mat or even interring their dead in coffins. These changes removed the bodies from direct contact with the naturally drying sands which caused the bodies decay. This didn’t go unnoticed by the Egyptians, and it prompted the idea of applying resins as a way of preservation.
An important point in mummification was that the features of the dead needed to be recognisable, as in the Egyptian's religion the ka (a person’s spiritual double that continued to live on in the tomb and offering chapel of the deceased) needed to be able to recognise the body so that it had somewhere safe to reside, and the deceased could therefore continue to exist forever in the afterlife. Not much is known about their mummification techniques from when it began in the Old Kingdom, as mummies are rarely discovered from this period. Although, there is some indication that before mummification was perfected, a type of cast was sometimes made by soaking linen in resin which was sculpted and placed upon the body, rather than the body being wrapped.
[Above - Limestone Canopic Jars from the Ramesseum 800 BC (23rd dynasty), taken at the Manchester Museum UK.]

The removal of organs to be preserved outside the body started fairly early on in their mummification techniques, as it was a way of further preventing the body from decay. These particular organs - usually the lungs, stomach, intestines, and liver - started out by being stored inside a chest containing separate compartments, or in niches in the burial chamber wall. During the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom, limestone or alabaster canopic jars were made to hold the organs, and these jars where then often stored inside the chest. They each held one of the four preserved organs and were closed with human-headed lids (earlier jars had flat-topped lids). At the beginning of the 19th dynasty, the human-headed lids were replaced by animal-heads representing the Four sons of Horus [see picture above], whom were believed to magically protect these organs. The baboon-headed jar represented the god Hapi and held the lungs, the human-headed jar represents Imsety and held the liver, the intestines were held by the falcon-headed god, Qebehsenuef, and the stomach was kept in the jackal-headed jar representing Duamutef. When, in the 21st dynasty the practice of replacing the preserved organs back into the abdominal cavity began, people sometimes still had dummy canopic jars interred with them so that their organs could still be symbolically protected.
King Ahmose (I), founder of the 18th dynasty, is the first person that is known to have had his brain removed, but it wasn’t removed using the methods that became customary later in the New Kingdom (out through the nasal passage); he had his removed by taking out the Atlas vertebrae (uppermost of the seven cervical vertebrae; called the 'Atlas' because it supports the globe of the head). They made efforts to usually remove the brain, and unlike many of their other internal organs, they didn’t preserve it in any way. The ancient Egyptians didn’t regard the brain as being in control of people's thoughts, knowledge, and emotions; these were considered to be a function of the heart. When a person felt sad, excited, or angry they noticed that it was the heartbeat that changes, and this was why the Egyptians thought that the heart was in control of thoughts and emotions. The heart was also considered the seat of wisdom and knowledge, which was why the heart was weighed against the feather of Ma'at in Chapter 125 of the Book of Coming Forth by Day, as it served the purpose of ensuring that the deceased's heart wasn't weighed down by sin before he was admitted into the afterlife. The importance of the heart was also shown by them with the heart scarabs that were wrapped in the bandages and were inscribed with Chapter 30B from the Book of Coming Forth by Day; which asks the heart not to speak out against him during the judgement (in other words; not to speak of the deceased's sins). This all shows that the brain wasn't thought very highly of in comparison to other organs; especially the heart, where sometimes heart-shaped amulets were even used to replace the heart if it had become damaged during the mummification.
To make a mummy appear more lifelike the mummified remains could be painted or coated in resin; as in the case of Sethy (I), whose features are extremely striking. Hair was sometimes dyed with henna to resemble the colour it originally was in their youth, or sometimes the head was shaved and wigs were provided. The New Kingdom also brought the introduction of stuffing the body to make it more lifelike, and onions or stones are known to have been used to fill out the eye sockets to give a more pleasant appearance. During the Late Period mummification techniques became much more shoddy, but the actual wrapping of the body became more advanced and became an art form in itself; admired more for its creative value rather than its purpose. Funerary masks were even made for those that could afford them in case the body became damaged or wasn’t aptly recognisable to the ka. For the pharaohs these masks were made from metals like gold, silver, or bronze, but for the rest that had them they were usually made from cartonnage which was often painted, or covered in gold leafing, and sometimes inlayed with jewels. The idea of using funerary masks originated in the Old Kingdom when the whole body was often coated in plaster to preserve the likeness of the individual: the head was moulded separately which introduced the idea of the funerary mask.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Process

Mummification was performed by embalmers; often in temporary tents called the ‘per-nefer’ (Beautiful House), and are referred to as the ‘ibu’ (Pure Place). A mask in the form of the god, Inpu was worn by the head embalmer/priest to symbolise that this god was observing and guiding the mummification process. The complete embalmment took up to seventy days, but it could be less if the embalmment was of a cheaper variety. When the deceased’s family sent the body to the embalmers workshop after the family had performed the initial mourning rituals, the embalmment could then commence.
The embalmers first cleaned the body in a water and natron solution. A special priest - called the incisor - then came and cut an incision in the left hand side of the abdomen around three inches in length, with an Ethiopian stone, to remove the internal organs. Mutilation of a dead body was considered a sin to the ancient Egyptians, so after the incisor had cut the deceased’s abdomen he would immediately flee the site while being chased by his fellow priests, whom would throw stones at him for committing the sin. In all likelihood, this was nothing more than a ritual, and wasn’t done with the intention of harming the incisor; the stones were probably just thrown in his general direction, and not actually at him! The intestines, liver, lungs, and stomach were purposefully removed from the body via the incision; but occasionally the kidneys came out in this process as well as the heart. If the heart did accidentally get removed it was put back in place; providing the heart hadn’t gotten too badly mutilated in the evisceration process. This is assumed to be the case with Ramessu (II), king of the 19th dynasty; whom according to X-rays, seems to have had his heart sewn back into place using a metallic thread...only, when the embalmers had sewn it back in place, they had sewn it into the wrong side of his chest! The brain was also removed by inserting a hooked instrument into the nose, and breaking through the ethmoid bone (a bone that seperates the brain from the nasal cavity), this hook was scraped around inside of the skull, until the consistancy of the brain was such that it leaked out from the deceased's nose; this process was possibly helped along with the used of palm oil to liquidify the brain. The brain was then, as far as we know, dicarded.
The intestines, liver, lungs, and stomach were then washed in palm wine, dried in natron, and wrapped in linen to form packages that were ready to be stored for burial; in canopic jars, for example. Palm wine was also used to clean the body of the deceased, before the abdominal cavity was packed out with linen and natron packets to collect the residual moisture from inside the body, and then the body was covered in natron and left to dry out for forty days. After the drying procedure was complete, the body was removed from the natron, and the linen packing and natron packets were removed from inside the body and replaced with fresh linen and natron packets, and also pure myrrh. The body was then washed in water and the skin was rubbed with oils and spices, such as; cedar oil, myrrh and cinnamon. The incision in the abdomen that had been made earlier in aid of removing the internal organs was sealed with a tablet of wax, or in the case of kings, covered with gold. Eyes were sometimes filled out with an onion or stone, and ears and noses were ocassionally plugged too. Make-up and jewellery was then applied to the deceased.
The wrapping of the deceased would then commence. Old bed sheets belonging to the deceased were ripped into strips to be used as his linen bandaging (this was possibly symbolic of re-birth), but in the Late Period, when the wrapping of a body became artistically important, weavers were employed specifically to make the linen bandaging used for mummification. Fingers and toes were wrapped first, followed by the limbs, torso, and head, which was wrapped in such an artistic way to keep the features of the deceased recogniseable. Resin was applied to the linen during the wrapping to hold everything in place, and amulets were placed in particular positions in the wrappings; these were symbolic and deemed magical to the ancient Egyptians, and were very important to their religion. Funerary masks were placed over the face of the deceased which had been made in the likeness of the deceased.

Unknown Man E??

Within the Deir el-Bahri cache DB320 was the mummy of an unknown man labelled “Unknown Man E.” Found amongst more than fifty kings, this mummy was unique. Discovered in 1881, it wasn’t long before the mummies began to be unwrapped; as it was the custom during that period. Gaston Maspero supervised the opening of the coffin of Unknown Man E in 1886, and found that the man had been wrapped in sheepskin. This was rather strange considering that the ancient Egyptians thought of sheepskin as ritually unclean. The unwrapping took place, but there was more surprises ahead: Unknown Man E’s face looked like he was screaming in agony, his hands and feet were bound, his abdomen was constricted, and there was no incision in his abdomen for removal of his organs. This coupled with the fact that the coffin in which he had been laying in was unmarked, led to the assumption that this man had died a very unnatural death, and introduced the theory that he had been buried alive.
Many theories exist into why he was buried in this manner. It’s been suggested that maybe he was poisoned, due to how his face was contorted and how his abdomen was constricted. Another thought, is that he was a foreigner that was buried in Egypt: This idea comes from a letter that may have been sent from Ankhesenamun to the Hittite King, Suppiluliumas, to request a son of his to be sent to her for to marry because she had just been made a widow (her young husband, Tutankhamun had just died). It’s believed that his son, prince Zannanza was murdered by the Egyptians on his journey to meet Ankhesenamun as they didn’t wish to see a foreigner on the throne of Egypt. Was prince Zannanza Unknown Man E? Due to more recent studies of this mummy it seems more likely to be one of two other explanations: Either he was an Egyptian that was away on a military campaign and died, leaving the foreigners to do what they thought was best until he could be sent back to Egypt. Or equally possible, is that Unknown Man E is in fact Penteweret; the son of Ramessu (III). Penteweret was found to have been involved in the Harem Conspiracy (a plot to take the life of the king), and it’s possible that he was made to commit suicide as his punishment. This theory would also explain why he was discovered in a tomb amongst kings, if he had been royalty himself.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Mummified Remains of Asru

One of the most medically studied mummies is that of a lady called, Asru. She was a Chantress at the Karnak Temple complex which is dedicated to the god, Amun, in around 1000-700BC (Third Intermediate Period). She is currently displayed at the Manchester Museum, where she’s been since 1825. Before being donated to the museum, however, Asru had already been unwrapped (probably in the early 19th century); this made her a perfect candidate for scientific study, as there were no linen bandages obstructing the way to obtaining good tissue samples. Even though the tests that were conducted don’t tell us much about mummification techniques during that time, it does provide a much greater understanding of how people lived in ancient Egypt. The tests showed that her lungs contained a hydatid cyst and damage caused by inhaling too much sand, which would’ve caused her chest pains and difficulty in breathing. Asru would’ve also experienced chronic back pain due to osteoarthritis, a fractured vertebra and slipped disk. The chantress may have died from guinea worm disease as there was evidence of this in her intestines, or possibly from shistosomiasis which was made obvious from X-ray images that show clear calcification of her bladder wall. Even with these complaints Asru lived to a ripe age of around 50-60 years old. Evidently, even though working in a temple was likely a good living in ancient Egypt, she suffered from many ailments that would’ve caused her much pain.
A reconstruction of Asru's skull was also made.
[Above two photos are of Asru, from the Manchester Museum, United Kingdom]


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