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Although most widely known for its existence in ancient Egyptian culture, mummification was also a part of several other cultures including: the Inca civilization on the coasts of Peru and Chile, the Han dynasty in the Changsha area of China, and the Inuits in Greenland. However, the ancient Egyptians are known unofficially as the “Fathers of mummification.” Simply put, a mummy is the preserved body of a human being or an animal. Mummification is the actual process of artificially preserving the dead body, also known as embalming. The oldest known Egyptian mummy dated back to 3500 B.C. The first artificial mummies were made around 3000 B.C.

Purpose & Function as a Medium of Communication

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The Egyptian God Amun

What did the Ancient Egyptians mean to convey through mummification? What were they trying to communicate to the rest of the world? What did it mean within their own culture? The Ancient Egyptians believed that after death, each individual would move on to the afterlife. The afterlife often took priority over one's actual life, as it was looked upon by the Egyptians as their own utopia, where each individual was in ecstasy. Some longed for the afterlife well before they were dead, as they desired this so-called amazing society. Physically, mummification was merely the creation of a grave for a dead body, but spiritually and mentally it was a teleportation device which could transport the human soul into the divine eternity of the afterlife. The statues represented the link between the living and the dead, and the presence of a God who desired to communicate with the citizens of His society. The tomb is physically the place for the dead body, but also the location where communicative acts allowed the living to contact the dead and contribute to their well-being. The 'Opening of the Mouth' ceremony, described in more depth in the Funeral subsection, also served as a medium of communication. In this ceremony the priest would touch the mouth of the mummy, allowing it to gain the ability to see, eat, hear, and touch in the afterlife; the priest animated the mummies life and allowed it to act within its senses. In essence, the mummy is transformed from a dead corpse into an animated, living being through nonverbal communication. This ritual acts as a rite of passage for the God to enter the world and transform and reside in the mummy, which stands as a symbol of the power of the God.

A well-preserved body was one of two requirements a person needed to accomplish to become blessed with the afterlife, with the second being the passing of a final judgment. Furthermore, leaving the body to waste was considered an insult to the Gods and to the soul of the deceased. There was really no reason to avoid mummification, as they would be doing themselves, their culture, and their Gods a kind act. Thus the ancient Egyptians worked hard at finding the perfect conservation process, in order to improve their futures in the afterlife. At first, mummification was considered so expensive and high-class that only Pharaohs and rich nobles enjoyed the process. Mummification could have been some sort of status symbol, in the sense that only the rich were mummified, while the poor were merely buried like ordinary people. By 1550 B.C., however, several more individuals were able to afford the process, and mummification became a very popular act.

The Beginning of Mummification

The Egyptians of the Predynastic period (the period just before the Pharaonic monarchy, prior to 3100 BC) employed a much more simple process than the New Kingdom, the dynasty which made the most advances in mummification. The first mummies were wrapped the body only in goat hide, and buried in a sand pit. The body would dry from the heat of the sand, and therefore the body would not decay. This was more of a natural process, as opposed to the artifical mummufication employed later on. Other early practices including placing the body on a made from branches, or building tombs out of mud bricks and covering the tomb with a roof.

One of the oldest forms of evidence was found in 2003 in a desert near Cairo. A pile of bones with skin attached and proof of resin was found in a coffin, which was located in one of 20 mud-birck tombs. The evidence suggests that the mummy came from as far back as 3100 to 2890 BC, during Egypt’s first dynasty.

The Process of Mummification

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The Embalming Process

The most familiar and widely practiced mummification process was that of the New Kingdom, which lasted from 1570 to 1069 BCE. This process took a total of seventy days, and was divided into several stages.

Embalming the Body

The process began with the body first being transported taken to a tent, the ‘place of purification.’ The individuals performing the mummufication process, known as embalmers, would wash the body with wine and rinse it with water straight from the Nile river in order to purify the body. They would then cut the body and remove several of the organs, since these are the first parts of the body that decompose. The stomach, lungs, liver, and intestines were washed and packed in a substance called Natron, a type of salt, which would make the organs more lifelike and flexible. At one point, the internal organs were placed in jars after being removed, and were not placed back in the body. Embalmers would bury four alternate jars with specific meanings with the body. The jars depicted four headed gods, the first was known as Imsety would “look after” the liver, the second was Hapy the baboon and represented the lungs, the third was Duamutef the jackal and protected the stomach, and the fourth and final was Qebensenuef the falcon, which guarded the intestines. The heart would be left in the body because it was considered essential to have in the afterlife, since it was believed to be the center of intelligence. The embalmers would then place a hook up the nose of the body to place a hole in the skull and scoop out the brain. Often times, masks made out of cartonnage were placed on the body’s head and shoulders, depicting the body’s face and wig to make it recognizable and distinguishable from other bodies. The embalmers would then cover the body in natron to dry it out.

Wrapping and Burying the Body

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After forty days had passed, the body was taken to the Wabet, or the House of Purification. The body was washed a second time with water from the Nile, and the skull was stuffed with linen. The nose was plugged, and the entire body was covered with a mixture of oil, wax, gum, spices, and wax to prevent the skin from contracting. Hot resin was also placed on the body to close the pores. It would then be covered with oils so that the skin would not contract, and the internal organs that had initially been wrapped were returned to the body. The embalmers would also stuff the body with dry substances such as tree leaves and sawdust to account for the missing organs and fluids. Embalmers would often place amulets within the linen wrappings; these charm necklaces were believed to protect the bodies from evil. The amulets represented a wide spectra of plants, animals, and body parts, and were believed to have magical powers and excerpts from the book of the dead.

After the completion of the wrapping of the body, the mummy would be placed in a coffin/case. Bodies were sometimes placed in several coffins, with each one increasing in size. More coffins signified more wealth for the deceased individual. The coffins were often painted with bright colors to represent the awaiting afterlife which would provide a better world for the deceased. The cases also included hieroglyphics and images of various Gods.

The Funeral

After the body was placed in the coffin, a funeral took place on the seventieth day after the death. As the body was transported to the tomb, two women stood close to represent the goddess Isis and her sister. Along with these two women were a group of priests, who would burn incense and sprinkle milk along the path of the tomb. One of the priests would read spells to honor the dead, and dancers would perform visual representations of these spells. A priest wearing a jackal-headed mask to represent the god Anubis would then hold the coffin upright while a priest would touch the mummy’s mouth. This ritual, called the 'Opening of the Mouth,' was believed to spark the ability in the mummy to hear, speak, eat, and see in the afterlife. The funeral was complete after offerings such as food and clothing were given to the body. Embalmers would also place models of servants in the tombs, so that the deceased would not have to complete tasks and chores in the afterlife. Furthermore, the tomb was equipped with items needed in the afterlife, including nutrients, furniture, and various goods.

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The 'Opening of the Mouth' Ceremony

The Decline of Mummification

During the existence of the New Kingdom, many royal tombs were robbed and mummies were stolen. When Egypt was conquered by Persia, Greece, and Rome and the death toll reached a very high level, the declining amount of embalmers had their work cut out for them. Bodies often decayed before anyone could get to them, and embalmers often shortened the process and sacrificed quality for quantity. X-rays of mummies found from around this time portray many incomplete wrappings, missing parts, and overall poor treatment. The emphasis began to shift towards a speedy process, as opposed to a complete one. Overall declining wealth also led to shortcomings in mummification and lack of proper treatment. The once skillfull and symbolic art of mummification had turned into a mere troublesome task, and the rise of Christianity also posed a threat to mummification. With the decline of the Egyptian hierarchy partly due to Greek ruling, Egyptian mythology and belief in the many Gods and afterlife took a backseat to Greek mythology, and the decline of mummification continued.No exact date has been noted as to when Egyptian mummification was put to an end, the process seemingly fizzled away over time due to the end of the ancient Egyptian empire.

Mummies in Society and Popular Culture Today

King Tut

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King Tut

King Tutankhamen remains one of the most widely known Egyptian figures; he represented the last heir of the family that ruled ancient Egypt for centuries. On November 4, 1922, the steps leading to King Tut’s tomb were discovered, leading to a sudden increase in news and speculation about the king. His outer coffin was built from solid gold, and two additional coffins protected him. Ten treasures existed in his tomb, and his body was buried in haste. His tomb contained sets of equipment that included bows, arrows, chariots, and throwing sticks. Also in the tomb was a painted wooden box depicting King Tut defending Egypt from possible enemies. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb led to an immediate influx of mummy representation in the media and particularly in film.


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The first film in the new The Mummy Series

Since the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1920, several movies based around mummies as horror figures have been produced. Movies like The Eternal, The Awakening, Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, and The Cat Creature all center on a mummy as the killer or main horror figure. Perhaps the most famous and well-known is The Mummy series, which includes a total of fifteen movies. The first film in the series, The Mummy, came out in 1932, and started the mummy craze; six sequels/related films followed this film. A British Film company began its own Mummy Series with four films. The newest installment of The Mummy series is arguably the most popular out of the series, including three main films: The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The series also included the prequels to the three mummy movies, this mini-series was titled The Scorpion King. After the success of The Mummy series, Universal Studios created an animated television series based on the movie series. The Mummy series helped to popularize the idea of mummies as a form of evil, although the majority of these films focused less on the actual process of mummification and more on the possible resurrection of mummies, something which did not happen in Ancient Egyptian society.

Across the World

Several museum exhibits have featured mummification, including the Los Angeles-based California Science Center’s “Mummies of the World: The Dream of Eternal Life,” Manhattan’s own Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Man in San Diego, California, and the British Museum in London, among others.

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A museum exhibit containing a preserved mummy


The Mummy Facebook fan page advertising for the movie released in 1999 has 193,428 followers, while the fanpage for the process of mummification has a mere 280 followers, suggesting the popularity of a more fantasized, horror influenced idea of a mummy, as opposed to the traditional and sacred process of mummification.

Modern Mummification

Although there is no evidence of any existing mummification practices, the embalming process still occurs mainly for scientific purposes. Today's process frequently attaches a tube to the body, and channels out fluids from the organs, as opposed to physically removing the organs from the body. Modern embalming is used mainly to slow down the decomposition process, or to preserve the body for scientific purposes.

The website of Summum ( headquarted in Salt Lake City, Utah offers mummification and funeral services available to the public. They employ sculptures who build the coffins, which can include paintings representing the religion of choice or Egyptian imagery. The body is washed while the organs are taken out, cleansed, and placed back in the body. The body is placed in a tank containing a special preservation mixture, and then is removed and covered in cotton gauze. A layer of fiberglass and resin is placed over this, and the mummy is taken to a Pyramid building to continue the process of the rites of Transference. Finally, the body is placed in a bronze or steel mummiform which is taken to a sanctuary or cemetery. They also offer the service for pets.


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