Counted among the best methods for preserving a body, Egyptian mummification, which is thought to have begun in 2600 BCE, is no less than art. The painstaking process involved embalming the body, removing the internal organs, thoroughly drying it out and finally wrapping it in layers and layers of linen.
So imagine our surprise when we heard that this elaborate process of mummification was never intended to preserve the bodies of the deceased at all!
If you’re having a ‘my life is a lie’ moment, you’re not alone.
Researchers at the Manchester Museum in England are addressing misconceptions about mummification’s intended purpose as a part of an exhibition called “Golden Mummies of Egypt”, slated to open early next year.
And a recent reveal suggests that the elaborate burial technique was actually a way to guide the deceased toward divinity and had nothing to do with preserving the dead.
It is ironic how it’s this England-based team that are correcting our misgivings regarding the purpose of mummification, considering it was Victorian-era English researchers who wrongly brought forth the idea in the first place. Earlier, they believed that ancient Egyptians were preserving their dead in a similar fashion as one would preserve fish simply because both processes involved one common factor: salt.
“The idea was that you preserve fish to eat at some future time,” Price said. “So, they assumed that what was being done to the human body was the same as the treatment for fish,” said Campbell Price, the museum’s curator of Egypt and Sudan.
However, the salt that Egyptians used for mummification was different. Dubbed ‘natron’, the salt was a naturally occurring blend of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride and sodium sulphate sprinkled abundantly around lake beds near the Nile.
Natron was used by the ancient Egyptians in temple rituals and was applied to the statues of gods for cleansing.
Further, the incense commonly associated with mummies likely served as a gift to the gods.
“Look at frankincense and myrrh — they’re in the Christian story of Jesus and were gifts from the three wise men,” Price said. “In ancient Egyptian history, we’ve found that they were also appropriate gifts for a god.”
“Even the word for incense in ancient Egyptian was ‘senetjer’ and literally means ‘to make divine.’ When you’re burning incense in a temple, that’s appropriate because that’s the house of a god and makes the space divine. But then when you’re using incense resins on the body, you’re making the body divine and into a godly being. You’re not necessarily preserving it,” he added.
The mention of cleansing salts and incense brings to my mind a spa day and not preserving a dead body, but Victorian researchers had other factors influencing their line of thinking.
English Egyptologists thought that the deceased would require their earthly bodies in the afterlife — adding undue credence to the misunderstanding of mummification.
Fortunately, the “Golden Mummies of Egypt” exhibition will be on display at the Manchester Museum beginning February 18, 2023. And it will display a number of burial masks, panel portraits and sarcophagi associated with ancient Egyptian burials, offering further proof of the original intentions of mummification.
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