Mummification and Mummies in Ancient Egypt

Peter Lacovara & John Baines. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2: The Response to Death. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Conflicting mortuary practices and attitudes toward the dead in modern Egypt mirror the problems inherent in constructing a picture of ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices. Scholars have noted survivals of pharaonic traditions in both tomb architecture and burial customs (D’Auria, Lacovara, and Roehrig 1988:25). Even in the absence of grave goods, grave robbery of a sort remains possible: In Naguib Mahfouz’s (1966:252-58) novel Midaq Alley, two people exhume recent burials to extract the gold fillings from corpses’ teeth. In cities and villages, cemeteries are prominent features of the landscape and often include mausoleums of the wealthy and influential as well as tombs of “sheikhs” or local saints. Modern cemeteries are frequently near ancient ones and may use contiguous ground. Cairo contains numerous grand mausoleums, notably of medieval Mamluk potentates. Family tombs include a structure above ground that is visited by living members for festivals at which the living and dead are reunited. When a death occurs, the entrance to the tomb is uncovered and the new body is deposited. These practices are contrary to the norms of Islam, which prescribes that graves should be devoid of anything more than a simple surface marker, as well as being largely inappropriate to the dogmas of the Christian minority. Because some modern Egyptian practices with regard to the dead are anomalous for the official religion—although paralleled in other Muslim societies—the possibility exists that there are more ancient roots for such theoretically incongruous behaviors.

The ancient Egyptian policy toward the dead and their tombs appears to be the antithesis of the Islamic orthodoxy. In many periods, an enormous proportion of the country’s resources was expended on burials, even though not everyone was able to have a formal tomb and mortuary structures that already existed were often treated with anything but veneration.

A mass of data about mortuary practices from ancient Egypt is available, and the existence of belief in an afterlife is well established. Nonetheless, surprisingly little evidence directly related to attitudes toward death and the dead survives, and the beliefs of the living about the departed are poorly known. Although there seems to be a discontinuity between the respectful ideal and the harsh reality of destruction, disregard, and oblivion, the latter may be more consonant with the negative attitudes found in less public and unofficial sources. The bulk of information about ancient Egypt comes from mortuary contexts, but this material is less informative about attitudes and continuing practices with regard to the dead than might be expected.

Textual evidence is also of limited usefulness, because Egyptian funerary texts are largely formulaic and typically record little of a personal or reflective nature (Gardiner 1935). What we do know suggests that ancient Egyptian culture was not unified in its perceptions of mortuary needs and destinies. The king’s destiny in the hereafter could be separate from that of his people, but from later periods at least, it appears that the people, too, could aspire to attain similar divine status.

“Mausoleum Culture”

Throughout antiquity, members of the Egyptian elite aspired to build tombs that would be visible and receive prayers and offerings in perpetuity. It is therefore surprising that few such elaborate tombs are preserved from the decentralized intermediate periods of history. Funerary display can be traced back into prehistory. Neolithic and predynastic cemeteries exhibit an increasing amount of social stratification through the development of larger and larger tombs filled with great quantities of luxury goods and contrasting with several different levels of less wealthy burials. The ultimate development of a monumental funerary complex consisting of a tomb and cultic structures for the reigning monarch appeared at the beginning of the dynastic era and endured almost as long as native Egyptian civilization (ca. 3000 B.C.). Royal tombs were usually in a separate location in the necropolis and of a different type from nonroyal tombs. Mortuary provisions were focused on the tomb but could also be provided through the temple and prayers and offerings enacted for temple statues or in chapels and cenotaphs (O’Connor 1974).

The “mausoleum culture” that developed around provision for the elite deceased must have looked to the living at least as much as to the dead for its legitimization. It served as an expression of status during the lifetime of the tomb owner and as a central vehicle of competition among peers. An explicit illustration of this is in the 6th-Dynasty statement of a man who chose to be buried in a tomb together with his father “in order to be with this Djau in the same place, not because I did not have the means to build tombs” (Davies 1902). Social status was also reflected on a larger scale in cemetery layout. Tomb size and location were indicators of wealth and familial or official relationships (O’Connor 1974).

At times, much of society must have been drawn—enthusiastically or not—into major mortuary projects, especially the great royal pyramids of the 3rd and 4th Dynasties (2755-2500 B.C.). Indeed, the “pyramid industry” of the Old Kingdom can be seen as the major economic force of the period, acting as a means not only of redistribution of resources but also of social control (Malek 1986:65-85). The breakdown of the social order in the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2130-1980 B.C.) after the end of the Old Kingdom was concomitant with the end of large-scale pyramid and temple construction.

Tomb size and type varied as much with the fortunes of particular eras as with those of the individual. Both texts and archaeological evidence suggest a social leveling in periods of internal strife and economic decline. Such a limited “democratization of the afterlife” has been postulated for the First Intermediate Period, when nonroyal people adopted funerary texts, regalia, and beliefs, some of which may until then have been the preserve of the king. The same period is characterized by a much wider distribution of prestigious grave goods than is found for the Old Kingdom. Throughout much of the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C., there was an interchange between royal and private traditions in tomb architecture and funerary symbolism. For example, the form of the pyramidal tomb was abandoned by the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (ca. 1539-1070 B.C.) and taken over in a reduced form for the graves of private individuals.

Pictorial and textual compositions inscribed in royal tombs, such as the Book of the Dead and other religious spells used in the New Kingdom, were adopted later by private individuals. Such borrowings between different spheres suggest that there existed a commonality of beliefs and symbols and flexibility in their use.

The essential “orthodoxy” of funerary beliefs is easily outlined, although the same beliefs were not necessarily held in all periods or by all social groups. Ideally, an individual would prepare for death by constructing a large tomb as an everlasting abode. He (or occasionally she) would set aside provisions for the tomb and create a mortuary endowment to continue to provide prayers and offerings in perpetuity. After death, the body was taken away for mummification and preparation with burial equipment, a process that lasted in theory 70 days (Lacovara and Trope 2001:34-36).


Mummification was more than just the preservation of the body, less like contemporary embalming than like taxidermy! It was an essential part of the ancient Egyptian funerary belief that the body be preserved and given as lifelike an appearance as possible. Just as most Egyptian art was idealizing, mummification was often an attempt to portray the deceased so that its owner would live forever in the next world in as high a status and youthful appearance as possible. Greater attention was paid to the outward appearance of the remains rather than to the process of embalming for most periods of Egyptian history.

Predynastic Period (ca. 3500-3000 B.C.)

Recent discoveries at Hierakonpolis have suggested that mummification began even earlier than previously thought. Already in the late Predynastic Period, attempts were being made to wrap and preserve the body. For all of Egyptian history, the main part of the process was basically one of dehydration. This may have been accomplished naturally in the Predynastic Period, when bodies placed in simple oval or circular desert graves, in a contracted position, were dried out through their contact with the hot desert sands.

Archaic Period (ca. 3000-2680 B.C.)

In the succeeding Archaic Period, as burials became more elaborate and religious beliefs continued to develop, rudimentary attempts at artificial mummification became more widespread. Although mummified remains dating to this period are small in number, a few bodies or limbs have been discovered. Some may have been defleshed prior to wrapping with linen, and great care was taken to model the appearance of the body in layers of cloth. In cases where flesh is preserved, the skin was probably treated with natron, as in later periods. Natron (ancient netjry, or “divine salt”) was the basic ingredient of mummification. It is a substance composed of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, and varying quantities of other ingredients, including sodium sulphate and sodium chloride, or common table salt. It had many uses in ancient Egypt, including curing meat and fish and as a cleanser, and was employed in the production of faience, glass, and as a detergent in the manufacture of textiles.

Old Kingdom (ca. 2680-2130 B.C.)

By the beginning of the Old Kingdom, recognizing that the presence of the internal organs contributed to more rapid putrefaction of the body, the practice of evisceration became commonplace in mummification. Four of the organs (lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines) were removed through an incision in the abdominal wall, and the body was packed inside and out with natron for a period of some 40 days. The heart, however, was supposed to be left in place, reflecting not only its importance as the focus of intelligence but its necessity to the deceased on the day of judgment. It appears, however, to have been removed, possibly by accident, in a number of cases.

The removed viscera were treated separately with natron and placed in containers called canopic jars or sometimes in compartmented chests. At the end of the dehydration process, wrapping of the body took place, using not only household linens and clothing but also fine linen purchased especially for this purpose, which tended to be used for the outer, visible layers. In later periods, protective amulets and jewelry were sometimes placed within the wrappings and sometimes magical spells were written in ink on the bandages themselves. The entire process, from death to burial, ideally took 70 days.

Mummification during the Old Kingdom was generally restricted to members of the royal family and the elite, but as time progressed, changes in religious customs gave more people the opportunity to have their bodies mummified. Apparently, several levels of mummification could be chosen. These were based on the financial means of the deceased and ranged from simple wrapping to the removal of the internal organs by dissolving them via a purge through the anus to full treatment with incision in the left flank. In the later Old Kingdom, an attempt was made to preserve the outward appearance by molding the linens of the face and body and even re-creating the clothing worn in life. Such features were occasionally applied to the body, over the wrappings, in paint or plaster. The body was then ready for placement in an extended position, either on its left side or later on its back, into its coffin.

First Intermediate Period (ca. 2130-1980 B.C.) and Middle Kingdom (ca. 1980-1630 B.C.)

The First Intermediate Period, which followed the end of the Old Kingdom, saw a great deal of innovation and experimentation in funerary customs, including the introduction of the so-called “mummy mask,” placed over the head of the deceased. By the Middle Kingdom, the process expanded to include the removal of the brain. After an early period of experimentation, the standard procedure developed was to draw the brain out through the nose with a long, hooked instrument. The brain was apparently disposed of because it served no special function according to ancient Egyptian belief. During the Middle Kingdom, a variety of mummification techniques were used. Some corpses were eviscerated and provided with canopic jars; others simply wrapped, often in copious amounts of linen, with no attempt to remove the internal organs. Others show evidence that a purge had been used to dissolve the viscera, and finally in a number of cases, there was some attempt to draw the organs out through the anus. Mummy masks evolved into complete body covers and the familiar type of anthropoid or mummiform coffins. Canopic jars became more commonplace and also took on a human form with stoppers in the form of idealized portraits of the deceased; some jars were even equipped with decorative arms and legs.

New Kingdom (ca. 1539-1075 B.C.)

Further advancements in mummification technique and funerary equipment were made in the New Kingdom, especially for royal burials, many of which have survived. There was a lavish use of imported resins, derived from coniferous tree sap, which slowed down the rate of decay by inhibiting the growth of bacteria, helping adhere the skin and other parts of the body, and imparting a sweet odor. It was heated and then poured into the empty cranial cavity, and into body cavities, and applied to the outside of the corpse as well. Cosmetic treatments such as the replacement of the shrunken eyes with artificial ones of linen and enhancing thinning hair with false locks, helped to give a more realistic effect. In addition, the body was stuffed with linen, lichen, and even sawdust to restore a lifelike appearance after the desiccating action of the natron.

Many of the mummies of the pharaohs had their arms crossed over their breasts, while the arms of other individuals were generally placed at their sides. Most bodies did not receive the lavish treatment that royalty and high officials did, and the embalming was often perfunctory.

Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1075-656 B.C.)

With the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period, mummification reached its zenith, with complex measures taken to restore the most lifelike appearance possible. Padding materials such as linen, mud, sand, and sawdust were introduced below the skin to plump up the corpse. The skin was sometimes painted, and artificial eyes of stone or glass introduced into the orbits. Strands of false hair, sometimes supplemented the natural hairstyle, and henna dye was used to give it a youthful appearance. Attempts were even made to provide artificial limbs when necessary. The viscera were still removed, but it became the custom to wrap them in linen after treatment and replace them in the body cavity, along with small protective figures of the Four Sons of Horus, protectors of the four organs. Canopic jars were no longer needed, but their customary presence in the tomb was continued, as nonfunctional “dummy” jars. The wrapping of 21st Dynasty mummies often conformed to a rather set pattern. First the limbs were separately wrapped. The succeeding layers alternated between thin strips of linen wound around the body and large sheets running from the chin to the feet. The basic outline of the body was maintained through the use of additional sheets and pads. The wrapping was completed with a pattern of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal bands of linen. Occasionally, such shrouds were decorated with an image of the god Osiris, who would be associated with the deceased in the realm of the underworld.

After a highpoint in Dynasty 21 (ca. 1075-945 B.C.), the mummification process began to unravel. More reliance was placed on external wrappings and decoration, and less on the careful preparation of the body. Although the internal organs and brain were often removed, resin was poured into body and cranial cavities and applied liberally to the outside as well.

Saite Period (ca. 664-332 B.C.)

Beginning in Dynasty 25 and continuing on into 26, also known as the Saite Period, the organs were sometimes packaged up and placed between the legs, and the age-old tradition of placing them in canopic jars was revived as well, although sometimes the jars were found to be empty. There was a decrease in the amount of internal packing of the body, and what was done was often rather careless filling with pads of linen, earth, and sawdust. The arms were placed in a variety of positions—along the sides, or with both hands covering the genital area, or crossed on the chest, or one arm at breast and one at the side. Wrapping patterns, however, became more elaborate with the inclusion of many amulets and a beaded cover placed over the face and body.

Greco-Roman Egypt (ca. 332 B.C.-A.D. 642)

Although the brain and viscera continued to be removed during Ptolemaic times (ca. 305-30 B.C.), some bodies were more carelessly preserved by a simple coating of resin, inside, outside, or both, and the alternative method of purging was still in use. The arms were generally placed along the sides, with the hands placed on top of the thighs. In the time of Roman rule in Egypt (30 B.C.-A.D. 642), the outer treatment of mummies included fabulous, diamond-shaped wrappings surmounted by encaustic portraits of the deceased or elaborately decorated plaster masks. Unfortunately, the care taken with the exterior did not extend to bodies themselves, which were given minimal or no treatment. Some mummies have bones that are completely disarticulated, and others have been found to contain incomplete bodies, or parts of more than one.

Mummification came to an end with the adoption of the Christian religion, which discouraged the practice of mummification, despite its emphasis on the resurrection of the body.

Tombs and Funerary Ritual

The final resting place of the mummy was the subterranean burial chamber, usually although not always physically contiguous with the tomb superstructure; it was sealed and not visited again unless later burials were added to it. Most major tombs belonged to men, who were typically buried in them with their wives.

The crucial phase of the mortuary ritual appears to have been the ceremony known as the “Opening of the Mouth,” in which the mummy’s mouth was pried open, which rendered it capable of receiving offerings and functioning in the next world. A designated person, typically the deceased’s eldest son, was responsible for finishing the tomb if necessary, conducting the burial, officiating at the “Opening of the Mouth,” and maintaining the cult. The mortuary cult, which was in principle similar to the regular cult of the gods in temples, focused on the presentation of food offerings and other essentials to statues and to two-dimensional representations of the deceased in the tomb chapel. This interchangeability of the body and sculptured images of the deceased may go back to those early plaster-coated mummies, which would have appeared much like limestone statues. Such safeguards were important because the Egyptians believed it essential that the mobile spirit be able to reunite with the physical manifestation of the deceased on earth, at any time (Bothmer 1982).

Within such a framework of belief and practice, the preservation of the mummified body and its tomb with its grave goods was fundamental. In many respects, Egyptian funerary art developed as a precautionary measure to preserve the “likeness” of the deceased in case some mishap should befall the corpse.

Similar safeguards ensured that sustenance would be offered for the deceased in the event that relatives or mortuary priests ceased to provide actual offerings of food and drink. These precautions took the form of inscribed offering formulas, which when read out would magically sustain the spirit of the tomb owner. The formulas presupposed that people would visit the necropolis as a whole, not just the tombs of their own kin, and would read and activate the offering spells.

These texts have two features that point in quite different directions. The formula itself runs as follows: “A propitiation which the king gives to [deiti(es)] that he/they may give [offerings] to [name].” It is self-contained, involving no ritual in the tomb and depends for its efficacy on the mediation of the king and the temple, where the monarch theoretically performed the daily cult. The deceased would then receive this reversion of offerings in the hereafter. In this way, the dead appear to have been drawn both into the affairs and customs of the living as well as into the regular cult of the gods in the temples. These beliefs and practices might have strengthened the position of the dead in the human community and also in the temple cults in association with the gods.

The Destiny of the Less Wealthy

The destiny in the next life of those who did not have tombs must be drawn into the discussion, even if little can be said about them. The number of burials preserved from antiquity and revealed by excavation can account for only a fraction of the estimated population. Even many of the graves or other indications of sub-elite burials that have been pointed to as examples of the “average man” clearly belonged to the relatively wealthy. Although indications of genuinely poor or mass burials are sometimes reported, some of them “formal” and some not, many people must have been disposed of after death in ways that are now archaeologically invisible. Some of that invisibility may derive from inadequate recording of excavated graveyards, some from tomb robbery, and some may be attributed to shifts in the Nile bed and other forms of natural and artificial destruction. But even if all these factors are taken into account, it seems that some people at least may not have had formal graves of any kind.

The cemeteries that are known present additional problems, for they do not reflect the demographic composition of society. Although in ancient Egypt women seem to have enjoyed a higher status than many of their contemporaries in the ancient world, elaborate tombs for their exclusive use are quite rare. Moreover, an additional demographic bias is indicated. Published cemetery data very rarely include large numbers of infant and child burials, yet infant mortality was certainly high. When a cemetery was found at Mirgissa in the Second Cataract region that reflected that demographic fact, its excavator considered that some special explanation for its composition was necessary. Much of the discrepancy may be attributed to inadequate recording by earlier excavators, who would have ignored the simpler burials of infants in their search for gold, jewels, and other valuables. More recent excavations have shown significant proportions of subadults in cemeteries of the dynastic era. Such interments were often not as elaborate as those of adults, so they could have been overlooked or destroyed in the course of unsupervised excavation.

Burials of fetuses or neonates have cropped up in odd contexts such as the foundations of buildings, suggesting that, as in many cultures, they were not necessarily interred in the same place or the same manner as adults or older juveniles. The existence of burials within settlements would run counter to normal beliefs and practices. Although the amount of evidence from settlement sites is very small, burials within those that have been excavated seem to have occurred only when the community had expanded over a forgotten earlier cemetery or, conversely, when a sector of a town was abandoned (Kemp 1968).

Contrary to popular perceptions, human sacrifice accompanying elite burials was unknown, except at the very beginning of the Dynastic Period or in the case of foreign populations resident in Egypt (Bietak 1989). Even then, it was not on the scale of the “death pits” at Ur in Mesopotamia or in the tumuli at Kerma in Sudan. Native Egyptians did not practice cremation, but in later periods, resident Greeks did.

Bodies that were dumped rather unceremoniously into mass graves, abandoned granaries, or other structures have occasionally been found and may be an example of the treatment that the poor or, conceivably, social outcasts could receive. Such interments, devoid of grave goods or monuments, suggest that members of the lowest social strata might not have had even a simple interment in a cemetery. Not just the level of expenditure on burials, but the very practice of formal burial, seems to have been socially determined.


In the ancient Egyptian ideal, then, the form of burial ritual, the correct preparation and deposition of the mummified corpse, and the presence of grave goods appear to have been central to burial and hopes of survival. The reality was often different. The priests and embalmers responsible for burial and for maintaining the mortuary traditions often cavalierly disregarded the ideal. Apart from their involvement in the destruction and desecration of burials, they subverted and made substitutions for the prescribed literalistic forms. Such shortcuts might or might not run counter to the basic intentions of those who wished to be properly buried.

Even when elaborate provisions had been made to prepare the remains of the deceased, the results were not always what had been desired. In some cases, the mummy was made up of the bones of more than one individual, possibly “leftovers” from the embalmer’s workshop. In other instances, totally empty coffins have been found, the body perhaps having been stripped clean of its jewels and trappings with the collusion of the mortuary personnel. This again underscores the paradox between the ideal and the real treatment of the dead in ancient Egypt.