Ancient Egyptians developed an elaborate mummification process that still influences modern embalming techniques. Mummies became a lasting symbol of a specific place and time in history. Many of us have looked in wonder at 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummies behind thick glass in a museum and seen the caricature of a body wrapped in strips of white cloth. But how do you really mummify a human body correctly?
Embalm Like an Egyptian
Ancient Egyptians developed a rigorous and specific process for mummification. The entire mummification process took 70 days, according to History.com. It was a blend of science and ceremony, as the body was preserved and believed to be prepared for the afterlife.
Step 1: Prepare the Body
The BBC reports that modern researchers used forensic techniques to identify the ingredients in the resin that ancient Egyptians used. The recipe included a plant-derived oil, such as sesame oil, a balsam-type of plant or root extract, a plant-based gum and a conifer tree resin, likely pine resin. These ingredients have chemical properties that give them antibacterial effects that prevent the body from decaying.
A standout among the ancient Egyptian tools used for mummification is the brain hook — which is just as gory as it sounds. Embalmers used this tool, which resembled a crochet needle, to pull the corpse’s brain through the nose.
They would make an abdominal incision and remove the lungs, stomach, liver and intestines. The body’s organs were placed in special containers called canopic jars. They intentionally left the heart in the body because they believed it was the source of a person’s thoughts and overall being. Next, the body was rinsed with wine, which helped to kill bacteria.
Step 2: Dry the Body
The next step was essential — they thoroughly dried out the body. To remove all the moisture, the embalmers used a chemical called natron, which is a naturally-derived salt with excellent drying properties, according to Scientific American. They stuffed natron packets inside the body, covered it entirely in salt and left it to dry on an embalming table. Then, 40 days later, embalmers would find a blackened and shriveled body ready for the next phase of mummification.
Step 3: Restore the Body
The second half of the process involved restoring the shriveled body to make it appear more lifelike. After the body was completely dry, the embalmers massaged the skin to make it supple. They perfumed the body and stuffed padding under the skin to make it seem more fleshy and realistic. Then, embalmers gave the mummies a bit of a makeover, applying blush and other paints, as well as false eyes.
Step 4: Wrap the Body
Finally, they coated the corpse in warm resin and wrapped it in the fabric strips that have now become the staple of a classic Halloween costume. Priests carefully wrapped each body part in multiple layers of linen strips, often placing a mask of the person’s face under the bandages. Each mummy was wrapped in 100 yards of linen strips.
Step 5: Say Goodbye
After the mummy was complete, priests performed a religious ceremony at the tomb. It involved a ritual called “opening of the mouth,” where they touched parts of the mummy with a special tool to “open” parts of the body to enjoy the afterlife. For example, according to Scientific American, Egyptians believed that when a priest touched the tool to a mummy’s mouth, the dead person would then be able to speak and eat in the afterlife. Lastly, they placed the mummy in its coffin and sealed the entrance to the burial chamber.
Modern Mummification Techniques
Today, mummification is rare, although there are some places where people still preserve dead bodies.
Communist revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, and his body was mummified using modern techniques. Nearly a century after his death, Lenin’s body is still on display at a mausoleum in Moscow.
Just like a mummy, all of Lenin’s internal organs were removed, according to All Things Interesting. His body was embalmed after his death, and a team of dedicated experts called the “Lenin Lab” continue to maintain it with precise lighting, temperature and embalming fluid, and by injecting the body with a secret mixture of chemicals. The Lenin lab has used this technique to embalm the bodies of other world leaders, such as Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh, North Korea’s Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, Bulgarian leader Georgi Dimitrov and former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
A religious organization in Utah called Summum continues to mummify bodies of people and their pets. According to their website, their updated mummification technique involves cleaning the body, treating the organs, then immersing the body in a preservation solution that’s made of chemicals used in genetic engineering. The corpse soaks in the solution for a period of time and is then removed, cleaned and covered in a “lotion.” Then, just like ancient mummies, it is wrapped in layers of gauze. Next, the embalmers apply a polyurethane membrane and then a layer of fiberglass and resin to seal the body. Lastly, they put the mummy in a metal sarcophagus and fill it with an amber resin.
Ancient Egyptian pyramids inspire modern engineers, and their mummification process aligns with modern chemistry. Embalmers may have tweaked the specific chemicals and upgraded the ancient Egyptian tools used for mummification, but the general process remains the same: Remove the organs, dry out the body, and then apply a cocktail of chemicals to restore it to a more lifelike appearance. Ancient rituals and the latest scientific techniques agree — in order to preserve a body, you have to apply antibacterial solutions to prevent decay.
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