Archaeological Findings

What was the ancient Egyptian embalming process?
Answered by Craig C. Freudenrich and Curiosity
  • Craig C. Freudenrich

    Craig C. Freudenrich

  • Curiosity

    Curiosity

  1. Egyptians put a lot of care into preparing their mummies to give the deceased proper passage to their afterlives. The embalmers had to remove all the water from the tissues and seal the body to prevent the growth of microbes and moisture. To do this, ancient Egyptian embalmers developed recipes using readily available chemicals, such as salts, beeswax, plant oils and plant resins.

    They started by carefully washing the deceased person's body to clean the surface. Next, the embalmer removed most of the internal organs to prevent decay from the inside. The brain was removed through the nose to preserve the appearance of the mummy's head. The lungs, kidneys and other abdominal organs were removed; only the heart remained because it was considered the dwelling place of the soul. The embalmer dried, preserved and stored the removed organs separately in canopic jars.

    Next, the embalmer dried the body by packing it in natron, a naturally occurring combination of salts. The organs were dried in a similar way. Drying the body was essential to preventing bacterial decay, which requires moisture to grow. The body cavities were packed with linens, bags of natron, sawdust and resin-coated bandages. This would prevent the body from collapsing and would keep it dry inside. After a drying period, the incision was sewn shut.

    Next, the embalmer coated the closed body with water-repellent materials, such as pitch, beeswax and plant resins or oils. These materials sealed the body to prevent moisture and microbial growth. Modern chemical analysis has revealed that the chemicals within the plant resins and oils (terpines and phenols) not only sealed the mummy, but also disinfected it. The removed organs also were coated and wrapped.

    Egyptians ensured that a mummy's hair was styled and sealed with beeswax before wrapping the body in resin-soaked bandages. This final stage added an outer layer of sealant to further prevent moisture and bacteria intrusion.

    The recipes of embalmers changed somewhat over time from the Old Kingdom (2649 - 2152 B.C.) through the Late Period (712 - 332 B.C.), before declining in the Ptolemaic period (20 - 30 B.C.). The process did not end until at least the Roman period (30 B.C. - A.D. 400). The recipe changes reflected the availability of materials from changing trade routes.

     

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  2. After washing the body in Nile River water, and after removing the brain through the nose and discarding it, the embalmers removed the abdominal organs through a thin incision, leaving the heart inside. All organs except the kidneys were washed, coated in resin, wrapped in linen and stored in what Egyptologists call canopic jars. After a purifying wine rinse, the chest cavity was filled with incense and other materials to maintain shape and prevent skin shrinkage.

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