A mummy is a corpse whose skin and dried flesh have been preserved by either intentional or incidental exposure to chemicals, extreme cold, very low humidity, or lack of air when bodies are submerged in bogs. Mummies of humans and animals have been found throughout the world, both as a result of natural preservation through unusual conditions, and as cultural artifacts to preserve the dead.
The best-known mummies are those that have been deliberately embalmed with the specific purpose of preservation, particularly those in ancient Egypt, where not only humans but also crocodiles and cats were mummified. Ancient Greek historians record that the Persians sometimes mummified their kings and nobility in wax, though this practice has never been documented in Egypt. The body of a Persian princess which surfaced in 2004 in Pakistan turned out to have been forged. In China, preserved corpses have been recovered from submerged cypress coffins packed with medicinal herbs. Probably the best preserved Chinese mummy is Lady Dai from Mawangdui. Researchers were able to perform an autopsy on her body, which showed that she had died of a heart attack ca. 200 BC. Although Egyptian mummies are the most famous, the oldest mummies recorded are the Chinchorro mummies from northern Chile and southern Peru. The monks of Palermo in Sicily began mummifying their dead in 1599, and gradually other members of the community wished to have their bodies preserved as a status symbol. The last person to be mummified there died in the 1920s. The Capuchin catacombs of Palermo contain thousands of bodies, many which are clothed and standing, however in many cases the preservation was not successful with only the skeleton and clothing surviving.
Although mummification existed in other cultures, eternal life was the main focus of all Ancient Egyptians, which meant preserving the body forever. Egyptian culture believed the body was home in the afterlife to a person's Ka and Ba, without which it would be condemned to eternal wandering.
The earliest known Egyptian "mummified" individual dates back to approximately 3300 BC. This individual, nicknamed 'Ginger' because of the color of his hair, is not internationally renowned despite being older than other famous mummies, such as Rameses II or Seti I. Currently on display in the British Museum, Ginger was discovered buried in hot desert sand. Desert conditions can naturally preserve bodies so it is uncertain whether the mummification was intentional or not. However, since Ginger was buried with some pottery vessels it is likely that the mummification was a result of preservation techniques of those burying him. Stones might have been piled on top to prevent the corpse from being eaten by jackals and other scavengers and the pottery might have held food and drink which was later believed to sustain the deceased during the journey to the other world. While there are no written records of religion from that time, the beliefs of those who buried Ginger could have resembled the later religion to some extent.
The earliest technique of deliberate mummification, as used ca. 3000 BC, was minimal and not yet mastered. The organs were eventually removed (with the exception of the heart) and stored in canopic jars, allowing the body to be more well-preserved as it rested. Occasionally embalmers would break the bone behind the nose, and break the brain into small pieces in order that it could be pulled out through the nasal passage. The embalmers would then fill the skull with thick plant-based resin or plant resin sawdust.
It also wasn’t until the Middle Kingdom that embalmers used natural salts to remove moisture from the body. The salt-like substance natron dried out and preserved more flesh than bone. Once dried, mummies were ritualistically anointed with oils and perfumes. The 21st Dynasty brought forth its most advanced skills in embalming and the mummification process reached its peak. The bodies' abdomens were opened and all organs, except for the heart, were removed and preserved in Canopic jars. The brain, thought to be useless, was pulled out through the nose with hooks, then discarded. It was also drained through the nose after being liquefied with the same hooks.
The emptied body was then covered in natron, to speed up the process of dehydration and prevent decomposition. Often finger and toe protectors were placed over the mummies fingers and toes to prevent breakage. They were wrapped with strips of white linen that protected the body from being damaged. After that, they were wrapped in a sheet of canvas to further protect them. Many sacred charms and amulets were placed in and around the mummy and the wrappings. This was meant to protect the mummy from harm and to give good luck to the Ka of the mummy. Once preserved, the mummies were laid to rest in a sarcophagus inside a tomb, where it was believed that the mummy would rest eternally. In some cases the mummy's mouth would later be opened in a ritual designed to symbolize breathing, giving rise to legends about revivified mummies
In the Middle Ages, "thousands of Egyptian mummies preserved in bitumen were ground up and sold as medicine." The practice developed into a wide-scale business which flourished until the late 16th century. Two centuries ago, mummies were still believed to have medicinal properties against bleeding, and were sold as pharmaceuticals in powdered form (see human mummy confection). Artists also made use of Egyptian mummies during the late 1800s, in the form of paint. The brownish paint was called "Caput Mortum", Latin for "Dead Head", and made from the wrappings of mummies.
In the 19th-century, European aristocrats would occasionally entertain themselves by purchasing mummies, having them unwrapped, and holding observation sessions. These sessions destroyed hundreds of mummies, because the exposure to the air caused them to disintegrate. An urban myth of mummies being used as fuel for locomotives was popularized by Mark Twain, but the truth of the story remains a debate. During the American Civil War, mummy-wrapping linens were said to be manufactured into paper. Nicholas Baker concludes that there is evidence to support the use of mummy wrappings for paper, while Joseph Dane doubts any serious attempt was ever made.
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