published on 18 January 2012
Mummification is a type of preservation of the dead that was most notably practiced by the Ancient Egyptians. During the Old Kingdom (2750 – 2250 B.C.) this long process of embalming the dead was an extravagance reserved for pharaohs, whose mummies were placed in opulent tombs or pyramids along with riches, foods, furnishings, and anything else to comfort them in the afterlife. Though unintentional mummification, owed mostly to Egypt’s arid and sandy climate, occurred as far back as prehistoric times, it wasn’t until around 2600 B.C. when the Egyptians began to practice mummification as a purposeful and ritualistic process. It was a long and expensive procedure, which is why only kings were mummified in the beginning.
The Egyptians practiced and perfected mummification for nearly 2,000 years, continuing the process well into the Roman period (40 B.C. – AD 364) of their history. As time progressed, the process became more streamlined, and eventually less expensive. Toward the end of the use of mummification, more Egyptians could afford the process, and it was no longer solely reserved for royalty or the wealthy (though it was still pretty rare for commoners to be mummified).
Religion was a very important part of the mummification process. Because most of those whose remains were mummified were kings and pharaohs, a lot of ceremony and prayer was involved in ensuring the body and spirit were prepared for the afterlife. Priests played roles in every step of the process, including wrapping the mummy with linen strips, placing the internal organs in the specially prepared canopic jars, and blessing the entrance of the mummy’s tomb at the funeral.
Why was it so important to the Egyptians to preserve the body? The Ancient Egyptians believed that the body was the house for the soul. Even after death, the Egyptians believed that the spirit could only live on if the body was preserved forever. If the body was lost, so too was the spirit. In Egyptian religion, the spirit was made up of three parts: the ka, the ba, and the akh. The ka remained in the burial tomb, using the offerings and objects placed within it. The ba was considered the soul of the person, and it was free to fly outside of the confines of the tomb. And it was the akh that traveled to the Underworld for judgment, and to gain entrance into the Afterlife.
Mummification as a scientific process of preserving the body, was very effective. During the process, as much moisture was removed from the body as possible, along with most of the internal organs. This helped to slow down the process of decay. Mummies as old as 3,000 years have been found in remarkable states of preservation. Well-preserved mummies, such as that of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen, have provided a wealth of interest and information for researchers and history buffs alike. Today, Egyptologists and other scientists study ancient mummies in order to understand Ancient Egyptian diseases, medical treatments, life spans, and even genetics. The process of mummification perfected by the Ancient Egyptians provides a fascinating window through which the world can look into and learn about their cultural practices and scientific innovations.