Mummies Around the World
"An Article by By Dr Joann Fletcher"
Mummies are associated with the legends of Egypt, but archaeologists have excavated preserved human remains the world over. Dr Joann Fletcher explores the fascinating and varied history of mummification across continents.
Beyond the Hype
'With 'mummy unwrapping parties' all the rage, otherwise sanctimonious Victorians felt no qualms desecrating pre-Christian bodies...'
Although the recent discovery of a 2500-year-old Persian mummy has proved to be a fake, the word 'mummy' is generally believed to derive from a Persian word, mummiya, meaning 'bitumen', used to describe the blackened state of ancient Egyptian bodies.
The term is now generally applied to all human remains which retain their soft tissue, either by natural means or artificial preservation.
Mummification can be found on every continent of the world, but the process itself is inextricably linked with the culture of ancient Egypt and for many the word 'mummy' is synonymous with Egypt itself.
Indeed, when the first mummy studies began in the early 19th century, those examined were almost always those brought back as souvenirs from wealthy tourists' travels in Egypt.
With 'mummy unwrapping parties' all the rage, otherwise sanctimonious Victorians felt no qualms desecrating pre-Christian bodies and even sent specially-printed invitation cards: 'Lord Londesborough at Home: A Mummy from Thebes to be unrolled at half-past Two'.
Even less fortunate were those mummies exported to the US for use in the papermaking industry or even, as Mark Twain reported, to be burnt as railroad fuel.
In popular fiction mummies were reduced to little more than bandaged corpses with arms outstretched as they staggered towards some hapless victim. In Bram Stoker's 'Jewel of the Seven Stars', his reanimated Egyptian princess established an enduring image of the villainous mummy endlessly repeated by Hollywood, from Boris Karloff's 1932 film 'The Mummy' ('It comes to Life!') to the current big-budget re-makes of recent years..
Yet lost beneath the fiction and the hype is the fact that these totally fascinating, wonderful 'artefacts' were once living people, and preserving them in as lifelike a way as possible was actually regarded as a way of providing a permanent home for the soul whilst effectively denying and ultimately cheating death itself.
A growth industry
'In the deluxe version, the brain was generally extracted down the nose and the entrails removed before the hollow body was dried out with salts.'
Certainly in Egypt mummification was very much a growth industry, with levels of service depending on cost.
In the deluxe version, the brain was generally extracted down the nose and the entrails removed before the hollow body was dried out with salts.
The dried skin was then treated with complex blends of oils and resins whose precise nature is now being studied using the latest analytical techniques.
Mummy of Wah, an Egyptian estate manager, wrapped in 375m of linen, c.2000 © With hairdressers and beauticians called in to restore a groomed, lifelike appearance, the finished body was then wrapped in many metres of linen; one estate manager called Wah (c.2000 BC) had been wrapped in an amazing 375 square metres of material, although this could often be recycled household linen as well as that purpose-made for mummification.
Covered in a range of protective amulets and placed in its coffin, elaborate funeral ceremonies designed to reactivate the soul within the mummy were accompanied by the words 'You will live again for ever. Behold, you are young again for ever', before the mummy was buried with generous supplies of food, drink and everything the soul of the deceased would need for a comfortable afterlife.
The Egyptians buried their dead in the great expanses of desert away from the cultivation on the banks of the River Nile, but whereas the wealthy were artificially mummified and placed in specially built tombs, the majority were simply buried in hollows in the sand.
Yet here they too were mummified by natural means, as corrosive body fluids drained away into the same hot dry sand which desiccated and preserved their skin, hair and nails. Accidentally uncovering such bodies must have had a profound effect upon those able to recognise individuals who had died sometimes years before, quite literally witnessing eternal life in action.
'...the Egyptians finally cracked it by removing the internal organs where putrefaction actually begins'
As burial practices for the wealthy became more sophisticated, those once buried in a hole in the ground demanded specially built tombs more befitting their status.
Yet here they were no longer in direct contact with the sand so their bodies rapidly decomposed.
This meant that an artificial means of preserving the body was required, and so began a long process of experimental mummification, and a good deal of trial and error!
Although recent excavations at the site of Hierakonpolis suggest that the Egyptians were wrapping their dead in linen as early as c.3400 BC, with linen impregnated with resin or even plaster to retain the contours of the body used by c.3000 BC, it wasn't until around 2600 BC that the Egyptians finally cracked it by removing the internal organs where putrefaction actually begins.
And for the next three millennia they refined and perfected their techniques of embalming both humans and animals to become the greatest practitioners of mummification the world has ever seen.
Yet for all their skill, the Egyptians were comparative latecomers to the art of body preservation, which had already been practised in South America for thousands of years before the Egyptians ever began.
The world's richest man
'In some cases the faces have been repainted several times and damage to the area of the feet suggests they stood upright, perhaps as objects of veneration.'
Discovered on the coastal area of the Atacama desert in northern Chile and southern Peru, the world's oldest mummies were created by small fishing communities known as the Chinchorro.
Although regarded as primitive in the absence of farming, pottery, textiles and literacy, their complex mummification techniques actually reveal a highly sophisticated culture.
From c.6000 BC, the Chinchorro began to 'rebuild' their dead, with bodies carefully defleshed and the skin, brain and internal organs removed. The bones were dried with hot ashes before the whole lot was then reassembled using twigs for reinforcement bound tightly with reeds.
Over this framework the skin was reapplied, and supplemented where needed with sea lion or pelican skin.
A thick layer of ash paste was applied over the body and a stylised clay mask used to cover the face, painted with either black manganese or red ochre to give the mummies a rather clone-like, uniform appearance.
It is difficult to know exactly why such pre-literate societies practised mummification, but it must surely reflect a desire to keep their dead with them since the mummies do not seem to have been buried immediately.
In some cases the faces have been repainted several times and damage to the area of the feet suggests they stood upright, perhaps as objects of veneration.
When finally buried the mummies were interred in family groups, and since the earliest Chinchorro mummies are children and foetuses, it is possible that women were the first to practice mummification in an attempt to keep their dead children with them.
The mummification begun by the Chinchorro continued and evolved throughout pre-Hispanic times amongst localised Peruvian cultures such as the Nazca and Chiribaya of the desert regions, and the Chachapoyas 'Cloud People' whose mummies have been found high above the Amazon rain forests.
Bodies were mummified in a sitting position with knees drawn up under the chin and hands placed near the face, and with jaws often having fallen open, Edvard Munch's celebrated painting 'The Scream' is based on a Peruvian mummy he saw in a Paris museum.
The upright position allowed body fluids to drain away through gravity, with the body itself preserved and protected within masses of superbly decorated textiles.
'...the majority of European and North American mummies were created by completely natural means...'
Mummies also date from the Inca period, when the habit of offering human sacrifices on mountain tops also produced 'Ice Mummies' through the natural process of freeze-drying.
In recent times over 100 such mummies have been found high in the Andes, surrounded by gold and silver figurines and offerings designed to accompany them to the gods.
A mummified Guanche, agreed to be an adult male © The Inca also used artificial techniques to preserve their dead, with mummified royalty regarded as very much alive and fed, clothed, paraded at important events and consulted in times of trouble.
Although the mummies of the Inca kings were 'so intact that they lacked neither hair nor eyebrows and were in clothes just as they had worn when alive', the Spanish conquerors of 1532 could not accept the way in which the dead were treated as living beings and to preserve their mortal souls they destroyed as many mummies as they could find - once stripped of their gold adornments.
Rather closer to home the Spanish also destroyed much of the culture of the Guanches, native inhabitants of the Canary Islands and descendants of the Berbers from nearby North Africa. The cave-dwelling, goat-herding Guanches mummified their dead and although the Spanish again destroyed all the mummies they could find, the few which remain display highly sophisticated techniques of preservation using locally available materials.
Recent examination has also suggested a link with the mummification practices of ancient Egypt, an important connection since the Guanches were still mummifying their dead when the Spanish arrived in the 15th century AD.
Yet the majority of European and North American mummies were created by completely natural means, such as the 'Iceman' whose frozen body was recently discovered high in the Alps near the Austrian-Italian border where he had died some 5000 years ago.
A further 8 frozen bodies of women and children in seal-skin clothing were found at Qilakitsoq in Greenland, although these 'Greenland Mummies' are only 500 years old.
Closest to home are the 'Bog Mummies' of north-western Europe, discovered in peat bogs where the acidic environment has preserved their soft tissue and produced a dark brown leather-like appearance.
Dating largely from the Iron Age (c.400 BC - AD 400), many of these Celtic bodies show evidence of fractured skulls, garrotting and slit throats, their violent deaths suggesting that they were victims of ritual sacrifice.
Face to face with the past
'...human remains were once the very last thing archaeologists were concerned with in their haste to reach the grave goods.'
Other evidence of human sacrifice has been found among a group of superbly preserved mummies some 3500 years old, but whilst they have Caucasian features, red-blond hair and even tartan clothing their discovery in the Takla Makan Desert in China has understandably caused consternation!
Yet the presence of ancient Europeans in China must be connected with the fact that the region lay at the crossroads of ancient trade routes between China and Europe.
The vast expanses of the Eurasian Steppes were also inhabited by Scythian nomads who also mummified their dead with great success to judge from mummies such as the so-called 'Ice Maiden', recently discovered in the permafrost in the Altai Mountains between Siberia and Outer Mongolia.
A Peruvian male mummy wearing a textile headband © Mummies have also been found in Alaska, southwest USA, Italy, Australia and Japan, and every one of them can reveal much about the times in which they lived.
Since most of their cultures were pre-literate, their actual remains are often the only means of finding out about them, and bearing in mind that the majority of mummies recovered today are part of rescue excavations, modern examination techniques are now virtually non-destructive.
From the early days of X-ray analysis, CAT-scans (computerised axial tomography), endoscopy, electron microscopy and DNA analysis for example are now used to provide valuable information regarding lifestyle, profession, relationships, health, disease, diet and even drug use of those living thousands of years ago.
'...human remains were once the very last thing archaeologists were concerned with in their haste to reach the grave goods.'
Although it has been said that to look upon a mummy is to come face to face with our own past, human remains were once the very last thing archaeologists were concerned with in their haste to reach the grave goods.
Yet the actual remains of those who created the civilisations in the first place are surely our most precious legacy from the ancient world, and therefore must finally be treated as such.
About The Author
About the author
Dr Joann Fletcher is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of York and as part of the University’s Mummy Research Group has undertaken work on human remains in Egypt, Yemen, South America, Italy and Ireland.
She is also consultant Egyptologist to Harrogate Museums and Arts and a number of museum collections in the north of England. Her publications include The Search for Nefertiti (Hodder & Stoughton, 2004), The Egyptian Book of Living and Dying (DBP, 2002), Egypt's Sun King: Amenhotep III (DBP, 2000) and the Lonely Planet Guide to Egypt, and as consultant to the media she makes regular appearances on television and radio.
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