The ancient Egyptian practice of preserving bodies through mummification is no longer the preferred method to pay homage to our dead, but it is still alive and well in research labs.
We’ve learned a lot about mummification from historical texts and actual mummies, but to truly understand the original embalmers’ secrets, scientists are following millennia-old recipes to make modern-day mummies. In turn, these 21st century mummies are producing new insights about their ancient forebears.
Much of what researchers know about the mummification process comes from sources like Greek historian Herodotus, paintings on tomb walls and the actual tools embalmers used. Researchers also make inferences about embalming techniques by studying the incision patterns and anatomy of mummies. But this evidence still can’t answer key questions about the mummification process.
Can an obsidian knife make precise incisions into the flesh? How long does mummification take? Are the embalming methods mentioned in the historical record actually feasible? Those questions are the subject of two studies this week in The Anatomical Record.
In the first, researcher Bob Brier and colleagues revisit an experiment begun in 1994, in which the team played the role of embalmer and mummified a man in his 70s who had donated his body to science. Brier followed the mummification processes developed during Egypt’s New Kingdom period (1550-1064 BC), which is thought to be the most refined method of mummification.
Brier used Egyptian natron, a naturally occurring mixture of soda ash and baking soda, to dry and preserve the body. His team crafted mortuary tools using the same materials and design the ancients used, and even affixed a wooden funerary amulet onto the body once it was complete. The Maryland man, who is now known as the Mumab mummy, became the first human to receive a royal Egyptian mummification in 2,000 years. In the current study researchers used the latest imaging techniques to examine the way Mumab man’s embalming marks, such as incisions in the abdomen, have changed over time.
In a second experiment, scientists from Greece and Switzerland also tried their hands at mummification. This time, they tested two legs taken from a cadaver to compare two styles of mummification: Natural mummification by dry heat, and “artificial” mummification using natron (as Brier did). The dry heat method wasn’t a success; within seven days researchers stopped the experiment due to “unexpected lack of mummification process” — we’ll spare the details. The second leg immersed in natron was almost entirely mummified after some 208 days.
Why Mummies, And Why Now?
By mummifying an entire cadaver and two legs, researchers gained new insights into the process. For starters, Brier learned that it’s incredibly difficult to pull brains out of nostrils. The hooked tools used for the grisly procedure, he determined, were most likely used to pulverize the brain into a liquid and pour it out rather than pull it out.
The leg study provided context to the ancients’ recommendation of leaving the body in natron for 30 to 40 days. After 30 days had passed, the experimental leg was far from mummified, though the natron did its part preventing bacteria and fungi from invading the tissues. It took 208 days for the leg to almost completely mummify, but researchers attributed their plodding results to lower temperatures and higher humidity levels in the lab — opposite to the conditions you would find in hot, arid Egypt.
More importantly, modern mummies serve as a standard benchmark to which all ancient mummies can be compared. We know Mumab man’s medical background and every little detail about his embalming process. We can actually interview his embalmers. Therefore, scientists can test their assumptions about ancient mummies by comparing them to present-day ones.
The most vivid lessons we learn in our lifetimes often come from direct experience, and that same adage holds true for understanding the fascinating science of mummies.
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