How Mummies Work

Mummy Image Gallery An open mummy case reveals mummified remains inside. See more mummy pictures.
Mummy Image Gallery An open mummy case reveals mummified remains inside. See more mummy pictures.

Along with Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolfman, the mummy is one of the great figures of the classic horror-movie genre. And it's easy to see why: In a sense, mummies are real-life, tangible ghosts. They are bodies that stick around long after death.

­The most familiar mummies, of course, are the carefully wrapped bodies of ancient Egypt. These figures are only one subsection of the world's mummy population, however. In the past 200 years, scientists, adventurers and capitalists have discov­ered ancient mummies in diverse locales all around the world.


In this article, we'll meet some of these mummies to see how and why they were so carefully preserved. We'll also look at some natural mummies and examine how the world's mummies help us understand human history.

What is a mummy?

A mummy is simply a human being whose soft tissue has been preserved long after death. Ordinarily, when a person dies, the decomposition process reduces the body to a bare skeleton in a matter of months. The rate of decomposition is dependent on a number of factors, chiefly the nature of the surrounding environment.

In most environments, the first stages of decomposition begin within a few hours. In this initial stage, called autolysis, organs that contain digestive enzymes (the intestines, for example) begin to digest themselves.

Autolysis is followed by putrefaction, the breakdown of organic matter by bacteria. In normal, temperate circumstances, putrefaction gets going about three days after death. Within a few months, the body is reduced to a skeleton. In hotter, more humid environments, this process is accelerated, because bacteria reproduce rapidly in such conditions. In colder, drier conditions, the process is slowed, because bacteria need heat and water to thrive (this is why we use refrigerators to preserve food). If the conditions are cold or dry enough, or if there isn't enough oxygen, the environment is so harsh that few bacteria can survive. In this case, the body will not fully decompose, possibly for thousands of years.

There are many circumstances that can lead to such a mummy. In nature, bodies have been preserved in the frozen ice of glaciers, the oxygen-depleted depths of peat bogs and the arid ground of the desert. The "Iceman" discovered in 1991 by tourists in the Italian Alps is one of the most amazing natural mummies. The 5,300-year-old corpse, found with perfectly preserved tools, died in a rocky hollow that quickly filled up with snow. Essentially, this created a natural freezer that preserved the body's tissues. This mummy has provided historians with a great deal of information about Europe's Copper Age, including representative technology, human health and tattooing practices.

In some cases, natural mummies have significantly altered our conception of history. Mummies found in China's Taklimakan Desert have provided several clues to the lineage of modern natives of this region. The structure of the mummies' faces shows they were of Indo-European descent. One man, who lived around 1000 B.C., has a distinctive sunray tattoo on his temple, similar to an ancient symbol for an Indo-Iranian god. This, along with other evidence preserved with the mummies, indicates that the region was settled by Indo-European traders, centuries before the Han Chinese arrived in the area. ­These mummies were created by the hot sand surrounding them in their graves. When bodies are buried in hot sand, without any protective structure, the sand can absorb the body's fluids, completely desiccating it. This natural mummification process also occurred in the oldest Egyptian graves. When a body was buried in the Egyptian desert, the internal organs were preserved and the skin was crisped to a dark, hard shell. This phenomenon had a profound effect on the ancient Egyptians: The idea that the human body could survive long past death indicated to them that the human spirit could too. In the next section, we'll see how these early natural mummies led to the Egyptians' infamous artificial mummification process.

Egyptian Mummification

A CAT scan of an Egyptian mummy from the second century. Researchers at the University of Illinois scanned the mummy one "slice" at a time, and then used this data to put together a 3-D computer model of the body.
A CAT scan of an Egyptian mummy from the second century. Researchers at the University of Illinois scanned the mummy one "slice" at a time, and then used this data to put together a 3-D computer model of the body.
Photo courtesy David Lawrence, University of Illinois Mummy Project

In the course of its 3,000-year run, Egyptian embalming (artificial mummification) passed through many stages. As we learned in the last section, the practice began with the natural preservation qualities of the arid desert ground. For many generations, the Egyptians buried their dead this way -- in the hot sand, with ­a few belongings but no casket or housing. As their concept of the afterlife evolved, the Egyptians became concerned about the comfort of their departed family members. They began covering the bodies with long wicker baskets and later with sturdy wooden boxes. Eventually, this led to fully enclosed coffins and tomblike housings.

­Of course, with the body fully enclosed, it was not exposed to the drying properties of the sand. The fluids remained in the body; the bacteria thrived, and the flesh naturally decomposed. This left the Egyptians with a real quandary -- they didn't want to leave their loved ones completely covered in sand, but they also didn't want the bodies reduced to skeletons. To ensure survival and comfort in the afterlife, the Egyptian scientists had to figure out a way to replicate the preservative qualities of the desert.


In the early days of mummification, the embalmers concentrated mostly on keeping the body away from the elements. They wrapped it up tightly in strips of linen soaked with resin. With careful application of these bandages, the embalmers were able to create shapely forms, giving bodies the filled-out appearance of the living. These wrapped corpses were impressive to be sure, but in most cases the bandages did little to stop decomposition. Bacteria survived inside, and the body was eventually reduced to a skeleton.

Through experimentation, the Egyptians discovered that decomposition worked largely from the inside out. Bacteria collected first in the body's internal organs and moved on from there. To stop the putrefaction process, the embalmers realized, they would have to remove the internal organs. This, combined with the discovery of the natural drying agent natron, led to the famous Egyptian mummies we know today.

The science and theology of embalming continued to evolve over the years, so there is no single Egyptian ritual. But the standard practices of the New Kingdom's 18th through 20th dynasties (1570 to 1075 B.C.), an era that produced some of the best preserved mummies, are fairly representative.

Egyptologists have determined that the mummification rituals were performed in the Red Land, a desert region removed from heavily populated areas, with easy access to the Nile River. Reason suggests that the embalmers may have worked in open tents, rather than solid structures, in order to allow proper ventilation.

Before beginning the embalming process, the Egyptians took the body to the Ibu, the "Place of Purification." In this house, they washed the body in water gathered from the Nile. This represented a sort of rebirth, as the person passed from one world into the next. Once the body was cleaned, the embalmers carried it to the Per-Nefer, the "House of Mummification," where they began the embalming process.

Egyptian Mummification: Embalming

At the Per-Nefer, they laid the body out on a wooden table and prepared to remove the brain. To get into the cranium, the embalmers had to hammer a chisel through the bone of the nose. Then they inserted a long, iron hook into the skull and slowly pulled out the brain matter. Once they had removed most of the brain with the hook, they used a long spoon to scoop out any remaining bits. Finally, they rinsed the skull with water. Surprisingly, the brain was one of the few organs the Egyptians did not try to preserve. They weren't sure what it was for, but they assumed you wouldn't need it in the next world.

After they had removed the brain, the embalmers took a special blade made from obsidian (a sacred stone) and made a small incision along the left side of the body. They carefully removed the abdominal organs through this slit, setting each one aside (with the exception of the kidneys, which the Egyptians did not hold as important). After removing these organs, the embalmers cut open the diaphragm to remove the lungs. The Egyptians believed that the heart was the core of a person, the seat of emotion and the mind, so they almost always left it in the body. The other organs were washed, coated with resin, wrapped in linen strips and stored in decorative pottery. These vessels, which Egyptologists dubbed canopic jars, protected the organs for passage to the next world.


Once they removed the organs, the embalmers rinsed the empty chest cavity with palm wine, in order to purify it. Then, to maintain the body's lifelike form, they filled the cavity with incense and other material. This kept the skin from shrinking down inside the cavity when the body was dried out. In the next section, we'll look at this drying procedure and see how the body was finally prepared for the next world.

Egyptian Mummification: Drying and Wrapping

As the Egyptian concept of the afterlife evolved, they began to use more and more elaborate coffins and tombs to protect and honor the dead.
As the Egyptian concept of the afterlife evolved, they began to use more and more elaborate coffins and tombs to protect and honor the dead.

After the embalmers removed the organs and re-stuffed the body, they laid the body down on a sloped board and covered it completely with natron powder. The Egyptians collected this powder, a mixture of sodium compounds, from the shores of Egyptian lakes in the desert west of the Nile Delta. Unlike the hot sand that dried the earliest Egyptian mummies, the salty natron absorbed moisture without severely darkening and hardening the skin.

The embalmers left the body in the powder for 35 to 40 days to allow enough time for the body to dry completely. During this waiting period, somebody had to stand guard, as the body's strong odor attracted desert scavengers. After the 40 days were finished, the body was brought to the Wabet, the "House of Purification." The embalmers removed the incense and other stuffing from the body cavity and refilled it with natron, resin-soaked linen and various other materials. In some eras, to make the desiccated body more lifelike, the embalmers also stuffed material under the skin in the arms, legs and head. When the body was fully stuffed, the embalmers sewed up the incisions and covered the skin with a resin layer in order to keep moisture out. The body was then ready for the wrapping, or bandaging, procedure.


Bandaging was a very involved process, and it typically took a week or two to complete. While the deceased was drying in the desert, his or her family gathered roughly 4,000 square feet (372 sq. meters) of linen and brought it in to the embalmers. The wealthy sometimes used material that had clothed sacred statues, while the lower classes collected old clothing and other household linen. When the linen was delivered, the embalmers selected the highest-quality material and stripped it into long "bandages" measuring 3 to 8 inches across.

The embalmers then wrapped the body in a shroud and began methodically winding the bandages around the different parts of the body. Typically, they started with the hands and feet, wrapping all of the fingers and toes individually, and then moved on to the head, arms, legs and torso. Once all the parts of the body were wrapped, the embalmers began wrapping the body as a whole. As they applied new layers, the embalmers coated the linen with hot resin material to glue the bandages in place. During this entire process, the embalmers uttered spells and laid protective amulets on the body (for protection in the next world), wrapping them up at different layers.

Mummy cartonnage and funerary mask from about 300 B.C.
Mummy cartonnage and funerary mask from about 300 B.C.
Photo courtesy NC Museum of Art

The Egyptians may have bandaged their mummies for a number of different reasons:

  • First, the bandages kept moisture away from the body so it would not decompose.
  • Second, the wrappings let the embalmers build up the shape of the mummy, to give it a more lifelike form.
  • Third, the wrappings kept everything together. Without this binding system, the fragile, desiccated mummies would likely burst or fall apart. In order for the bandages to contain the mummy effectively, they had to be wound tightly and meticulously.

After the mummy was fully wrapped, the embalmers attached a rigid cartonnage cage to the body and affixed a funerary mask to the head. This new face, which was either a likeness of the deceased or a representation of an Egyptian god, played an important role in the passage to the afterlife. It helped the spirit of the deceased find the correct body among the many Egyptian tombs.

When the mummy was completed, it was housed in a suhet, a coffin decorated to look like a person. The suhet was brought to the tomb in a procession of mourners. At the tomb, the priest, dressed as the jackal god Anubis, performed the "ceremony of the mouth," a ritual in which sacred objects were touched to the suhet's face, giving the deceased the powers of speech, sight, touch, hearing and taste in the next world. The suhet was then leaned against the wall inside the tomb, where it was sealed up with all the food, furniture and supplies that the deceased would need in the next world.



Other Ancient Mummies

Mummy from New Guinea
Mummy from New Guinea

The ancient Egyptians are the most famous mummy-makers, but they were not the only ancient civilization, or even the first, to preserve their dead. The Chinchorro people of northern Chile developed a mummification process around 5000 B.C., some 2,000 years before the Egyptians. These mummies, the oldest in the world, are nothing like the famous Egyptian figures. The Chinchorros dismembered and disemboweled the body completely, then attached the pieces back together using straw, plant fibers and stick. They then covered this frame with black mud, which they sculpted into a human form with a face and other ornamentation.

The resulting mummies are a strange hybrid of a corpse and a statue. It's unclear what the motivation behind this practice was, but many researchers believe it did not have to do with any concept of an afterlife. The mummies show signs of wear, and even repainting, indicating they were kept in households as statues for some time before being buried. This practice indicates that the mummies were created more for the sake of the deceased's family and friends, rather than for the good of the deceased. The Chinchorro people probably kept the mummies around as a way to honor and remember the dead, to help them mourn the loss.


Some later South American cultures also produced mummies, both by artificial and natural means. In the mountains of Peru, scientists have uncovered many Incan bodies preserved by the dry atmosphere and extremely cold temperatures. Even though the mummifying agent is completely natural, these mummies are, in a sense, man-made -- they were deliberately brought to the remote location with the understanding that the bodies would be preserved there. The Incans sacrificed children and took the bodies to these high points as an offering to their gods.

Some of the most amazing mummies have been found in China. Lady Cheng, a Chinese aristocrat who lived over 2,000 years ago, is the best-preserved ancient mummy in the world. She was laid to rest immersed in a special embalming fluid that kept her tissue relatively soft. Her body and some of her possessions were protected by a series of nested coffins housed in an airtight tomb. Chinese scientists have not studied her in detail, so they still don't know exactly how she was preserved. The embalming fluids seem to have a mercury component to them, which may have been one of the keys to her preservation.

When we think of mummies, we typically imagine bodies preserved from ancient times. But as we'll see in the next section, the practice of mummification continues today. Some of the most amazing mummies have been produced in the past hundred years.

Modern Mummies

­In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a surge of interest in the mummies of ancient Egypt. "Unravelings" were a popular form of entertainment, and people­ from all classes were fascinated by the beliefs and practices of the Egyptian age. One effect of this phenomenon was that some people began revisiting the idea of mummification -- with the addition of some new technology.

The most famous modern mummies are Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the Russian revolutionist, and Eva Peron, the revered wife of Argentinean president Juan Peron. Lenin died in 1924, soon after the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb, which influenced the decision to preserve Lenin's body and display it at the Kremlin. The exact chemicals and procedure that keep his body perfectly preserved are a Russian secret, but we do know that the mummification is an ongoing process. The Russians periodically immerse him in a preservative bath and then dress him in a waterproof suit to hold the fluids inside.


Like Lenin, Eva Peron's body was so perfectly preserved that she appears to be alive. This was accomplished with a revolutionary embalming treatment that essentially replaced all the fluid in her body with wax. Peron and similar mummies are really a lot like the wax dummies you see in a wax museum, except, of course, that they are the actual remains of a person.

In the 1970s, a group of scientists expanded on this idea to create a process called plastination. In the complicated plastination process, all of the water and lipids in the body's cells are replaced with polymers. The body takes on the properties of plastic: It is durable, flexible, doesn't have a strong odor and, most importantly, doesn't decompose. Plastination is used to preserve body parts for anatomical research and education, but it is also used artistically. In a controversial exhibit that traveled through Europe and Asia, stripped-down, plastinated human bodies were sculpted into wild shapes and positioned in active poses. The exhibit showed all of the inner workings of the human body, in both healthy and diseased bodies.

Dr. Bob Brier, a renowned Egyptologist, used a very different approach with his modern mummy. Instead of advancing the mummification process with new technology, Dr. Brier endeavored to replicate the Egyptian technique exactly. In 1994, he pulled off this feat at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, with fascinating results. Among other things, his experiment demonstrated that it was the Egyptian mummification process itself, not the thousands of years sealed up in a coffin, that gave Egyptian mummies their distinctive withered appearance.

In the future, mummification technology will surely continue to evolve. It's a good bet that a lot of this development will be in technologies designed to preserve dead bodies so they may someday be brought back to life (cryogenics, for example). Like the ancient Egyptians, many people today are shelling out a fortune for these services, in the hopes that science may someday be able to reverse whatever killed them. Remarkably, in the thousands of years since the time of the Egyptians, people are still drawn to mummification as a means of insuring immortality.

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