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From Chile to China, Qilakitsoq to the Canary Islands: Mummies around the World

From Chile to China, Qilakitsoq to the Canary Islands: Mummies around the World

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  • TTUAlison TTUAlison's Avatar 06-08-06 | 10:21 AM
  • The mummy is 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.
  • TTUAlison TTUAlison's Avatar 06-08-06 | 10:22 AM
  • 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.

  • TTUAlison TTUAlison's Avatar 06-09-06 | 08:06 AM
  • 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.

    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.

  • TTUAlison TTUAlison's Avatar 06-10-06 | 07:52 AM
  • 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.


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