Ask Smithsonian: How Do You Make a Mummy?

Mummification has been practiced for eons and the Egyptians are the best known, but not the only practioners

There’s a multitude of ways to mummify a body, as various cultures that have practiced mummification over the millennia can attest. Mummification can also happen naturally, by happenstance.

Egypt is most often associated with mummies, but preserved human and animal bodies have been found worldwide from China to the Middle East, from Europe to South America. Some were purposeful, elaborate burial customs. Others may have been integral to ritual sacrifice. That looks to be the case with more than a hundred bodies that have been found in peat bogs around northern Europe, many dating to the Iron Age (1,200-600 B.C.).

Some found in Ireland have been determined to be sacrifices associated with prehistoric coronation ceremonies. The bogs, starved of oxygen, are perfect preservation media.

Similarly, harsh environments—extremely dry or cold—also foster mummification. In 1991, hikers in the Tyrol mountains on the Austrian-Italian border stumbled upon a preserved corpse, likely exposed by glacial melting. Otzi, as he was eventually named, was determined to be more than 5,000 years old. It’s thought that he bled to death after being shot through by an arrow, but it’s still not exactly clear how he became mummified, according to officials at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, which studies and displays his remains.

Elsewhere in the world, long before Otzi met his fate, other cultures purposely mummified their dead. Some 7,000 years ago—2,000 or so years before the Egyptians, and 6,000 years before the Incas—the Chinchorro people of coastal Peru and Chile began drying out the bodies of the deceased, which was fairly easy in that very arid region.

The Chinchorro would remove internal organs and the skin, and sometimes, the head. They would stuff grass and reeds around the skeleton, and paste a wig made of real hair onto the skull or recreated head. The “body” would then be painted using a pigment derived from black sand. Eventually, red was substituted as a favored color. Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of these mummies in the area, showcasing more than 3,000 years of differing techniques.

Variation was seen in Egypt, too, says Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist and research associate at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

“There was never one way,” to mummify a body, says Teeter. Long before mummification became a formal, intentional process, Egyptian dead became naturally mummified after being buried in the sand. But that kind of burial wasn’t always secure. Sometimes bodies were dug up by an animal or a grave robber looking for trinkets. Those with the means began seeking out ways to more fully preserve corpses, because it was believed that the spirit would rejoin the body in the afterlife.

Egyptologists once thought that the practice of formally mummifying the dead began about 2,500 B.C. (or about 4,500 years ago) during the rein of Khufu, who built the largest of the pyramids at Giza, Teeter says. But she notes that more recent excavations show that experimentation with artificial mummification may have begun 500 or more years earlier.

The process took about 70 days, but some mummifications could go longer. To start, the special priests who acted as undertakers and spiritual guides removed the internal organs through an incision on the side of the abdomen, leaving the heart, which was considered to be the center of the body and soul. The brain was removed, bit by bit, through the nose. Anything wet had to be taken out as it would lead to decomposition, says Teeter.

The body itself was desiccated by covering it in natron, a special salt that was like baking soda. The organs were also mummified and put into storage containers, or canopic jars, for placement with the body, whether in a small burial pit or a large tomb. Any shrinkage in the body was restored using linen, and the body was also wrapped in linen. Each successive layer of wrapping received a resin coating.

No one knows exactly how Egyptians learned about anatomy and corpse preservation, but “we assume it was a trial and error process,” partly informed by bodies that popped up from less-secure burials, says Teeter.

Why preserve the body and its various components? The theory is that “the person would be reborn again and they’d need their essential parts,” Teeter says, but she notes that the brain was never preserved, even though there’s evidence from papyrus scrolls that the ancient Egyptians understood that it was an important organ for life. The bodies would not reassemble in the afterlife, but the notion was that if the body was gone, the spirit could not return.

Teeter says that mummification could be simple or grand, but that Egyptian theology guaranteed passage into the afterlife no matter how rich or poor the burial. “The person is reborn based on their characters and their deeds,” she says. “When you’re dead, you all go to the same place, no matter how good your coffin is.”

The elite burials were about displaying wealth, and often it was “completely wretched excess,” she says. The Egyptians stopped mummifying their dead with the advent of Christianity, which frowned on the practice, says Teeter.

Life-like preservation of the dead has continued into modern times. Historic figures including Vladimir Lenin, Eva Peron, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Jong-Il, and Hugo Chavez have all been embalmed in a way to allow their bodies to be put on permanent display.

And mummification is an option for those Americans who want to go that route. For $67,000, Salt Lake City-based Summum will mummify the dearly departed (using slightly more modern techniques). Casket, life mask, tomb and mummified pets to accompany the deceased into the afterlife are extra.

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The exhibition "Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt" is on view at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

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