Mythological Beliefs & Scientific Reasons for the Mummification of the Royals in Ancient Egypt

Tutankhamun's gold sarcophagus is one of the best preserved from ancient Egypt.
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Mummies, elaborate tombs, and gold funerary coffins are synonymous with ancient Egypt. The most famous ancient Egyptian royal mummies, including Tutankhamun and Ramesses II, are on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. If not for mummification, the bodies of these kings would have never been preserved thousands of years after death. Mummification began as a naturally-occurring process and was later perfected artificially and used to preserve the bodies of Egyptian royals.

1 Natural Process of Mummification

Egypt’s dry desert climate created the perfect environment for natural mummification. In pre-dynasty Egypt, individuals were buried in the ground. The soil’s high content of natron, a natural salt, paired with the desert dryness naturally mummified bodies over a short period of time. When ancient Egyptians began to bury their dead in sarcophagi, they realized the bodies decayed quickly and were not as well-preserved as when buried in the ground. An artificial process of mummification thus emerged so that bodies would be preserved.

2 Mythological and Religious Reasons for Mummification

Myth and religion were large components of life in ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death, the individual passes into the afterlife. In order for the deceased to live in the afterlife, however, his body has to be preserved and remain intact. Mummification makes this possible. In ancient Egyptian religious mythology, the jackal-headed god Anubis performs the mummification procedure. Images of Anubis appear on walls of tombs and sarcophagi.

3 Artificial Mummification of Royalty

The process of artificial mummification developed over a period of time. The entire process took seventy days. First, viscous organs were removed, as these contained high moisture content and would rapidly decay; the stomach, lungs, liver and intestines were placed in canopic jars and were set aside for placement in the tomb. The deceased was dehydrated with a mixture of natron, which was placed inside and outside the body until all moisture had evaporated. Next, priests wrapped the body in strips of linen. The body was well wrapped, with protective amulets buried within the wrappings. The mummy was placed in a series of three sarcophagi, the last of which was usually ornately decorated with the deceased's name, title and face.

4 Royal Tombs for Royal Mummies

An elaborately preserved royal body was not buried in the ground. Royal tombs were constructed to house the deceased. Large royal burial grounds emerged; the most famous is the Valley of the Kings, where rock-cut tombs housed royal kings for centuries. These tombs were elaborate, often containing multiple chambers. They were painted with scenes of the deceased throughout his life. The tomb was filled with anything the royal would need in the afterlife, including furniture, clothing, food, games, and even mummified royal pets. Following the burial procession and placement of the mummy in the tomb, the tomb door was sealed. This did not prevent tomb robbers from entering and stealing grave goods, however, and nearly all of the tombs uncovered by archaeologists had been looted at one point during history.

5 Preservation Today

The Valley of the Kings has been extensively excavated and thus the royal mummies housed there have been moved to museums. Preserving these fragile mummies is a balancing act. After spending thousands of years in the dry desert climate, any exposure to humidity and moisture can be severely detrimental. Temperature-controlled cases with low humidity are required to prevent mold from forming and deteriorating the body. Hair, teeth, and nails are incredibly fragile and must be cared for if the mummy is moved or cleaned.

Natalie Chardonnet began writing in 2006, specializing in art, history, museums and travel. In 2010, she presented a paper on those subjects at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research. Chardonnet has a Bachelor of Arts in art history and a minor in Italian studies from Truman State University, in addition to a certificate in French from Ifalpes University in Chambery, France.