Egyptian Mummification

illustrated landscape including a building, sphinx, and pyramids

The Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom (3050–2181 BCE)

pyramid pictograph

Because a well-preserved body was necessary for life after death, the Egyptians began trying to find an artificial way of preserving the dead. While excavating the Dynasty 1 tomb of King Djer in 1899, British archaeologist Flinders Petrie discovered the earliest known attempt at preservation. In the brick wall of the tomb Petrie found the lower part of an arm that had been wrapped in many layers of bandages. Though a beginning, this wrapping process alone had not stopped the body from decaying.

Until a workable method of embalming bodies was discovered, the emphasis turned to creating a permanent covering that looked like the deceased even though the body inside had decayed. (The Egyptians believed that items that looked like the deceased could serve as substitutes in case the body was lost or destroyed.) The answer was to take linen cloth soaked in resin or covered with plaster and mold it around the body. As the resin or plaster dried, it hardened into the molded shape. Special care was taken in the molding of the face, so it would be easily recognizable. This part of the molding could also be painted to heighten the lifelike appearance.

In Dynasty 4 (2613-2498 BCE) developments toward true embalming began. For the first time some of the corpse's internal organs were removed through an incision in the abdomen, a process that helped to slow the decaying of the body. The removed organs were saved and wrapped in resin-soaked linen. Sometimes they were placed in containers; sometimes they were placed in special areas in the tomb walls.

The process of wrapping the body in molded linen continued because only removing the internal organs did not preserve the corpse for long. The body was now wrapped in a fully extended position instead of the former crouched position. It is believed the position was changed because it was easier to remove the internal organs through the abdomen while the body was fully extended.

The first evidence of the use of natron to dry out the body as the sand had done also comes from a Dynasty 4 tomb. The organs of Queen Hetepheres were found in a container of natron solution. Hetepheres was the mother of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid.

"I am the phoenix, the soul of Re, who guides the gods to the Netherworld when they go forth. The souls on earth will do what they desire and the soul of [the deceased] will go forth at his desire." Spell 29B - The Book of the Dead