Modern mummification with ancient tools

Although we haven’t explicitly talked about Dynastic mummies yet, Bob Brier’s lecture last week  revolved around his attempt to create a modern mummy using Ancient Egyptian tools prompted me to write a post about how the details of mummification were discovered using historical documents and eventually,  actually mummifying a human cadaver.

In a short article, Brier noted that while a lot is known about Ancient Egyptian burial and mortuary practices, the only known detailed account of mummification was written by none other than Herodotus.

When writing his book, Brier realized that he didn’t know a lot of details regarding how Ancient Egyptians were mummified. He asked questions such as, “Did embalmers drain the blood?” and “How do you remove a brain through a nose?”. In order to answer these questions, Brier set out to mummify a body donor using Ancient Egyptian tools and practices.

This isn’t the first time that scholars have used tools to learn more about the practices of past societies. I think the use of Ancient Egyptian tools to answer questions about embalming practices is an interesting way to study Ancient Egypt. However, I wondered how Bob Brier knew how to use the tools without any accounts dictating how. Thus, I went to the lecture hoping to understand how Dr. Brier figured it out.

Although he discussed many tools necessary for mummification, I’m gong to focus on the tool used to remove the brain to one’s nose. Dr. Brier explained how originally he (and other archaeologists) thought that the tool was used by inserting the tool up the nasal cavity, and removing pieces of the brain a little bit at a time. It turned out that this practice didn’t work. However, one method that did work was using the tool as a whisk, turning the brain into a liquid form, and then inverting the body and letting the brain seep out through the nose. (You have to admit, it’s a little cool and gross at the same time).

It was great example of problem solving, but there is still a little part of me who wonders if this is actually how the tool was used, or if we simply found another way using the same tool.

3 thoughts on “Modern mummification with ancient tools

  1. I also enjoyed the lecture by Dr. Bob Brier and thought it was a fascinating example of experimental archaeology (although he is an Egyptologist by training). Ancient Egyptian mummies are very common and much has been done to study them both externally and internally, but Dr. Brier wanted to recreate the mummification process to more fully understand ancient Egyptian practices. What I found most intriguing was how Dr. Brier was able to gather enough information to recreate a mummy from very few written/pictorial sources. Trying to determine the exact tools, containers, materials, and methods was certainly a challenge, but one he seems to have successfully achieved.

    I also agree with Kailey as to whether or not Dr. Brier “got it right” with regards to the use of particular tools and methods. His description of the implement and method used to remove the brain seems plausible (in fact, it did work during his experiment), so I am inclined to accept his conclusions until proven otherwise (perhaps by creating another modern mummy). We may never know exactly how the ancient Egyptians removed the brain and viscera, so for now, Dr. Brier’s techniques are the closest evidence or “proof” we have about the ancient practice of mummification.

  2. I wanted to go to this lecture, but unfortunately I believe I had something at the same time. You mentioned that Dr. Brier used Herodotus to try to figure out how to use the embalming tools, however I was wondering if anyone’s ever looked at what markings (if any) such tools leave on the body. I would imagine that liquefying someone’s brain through their nose would constitute as a rather invasive procedure, and I’d think that it would potentially leave some rather obvious marks on the later mummified remains. Did Dr. Brier mention looking at what types of markings his procedures left on the body, or was he more focused on figuring out even how it is possible to do such a thing?

    Nevertheless, his results sound truly fascinating. While I am a little disturbed that anyone would spend so much time devoted to figuring out how to remove someone’s brains the way that people did it thousands of years ago (then again, if I were to donate my body to science, that would be a pretty cool thing to donate it to), it sounds like his findings truly contribute to our understanding of how ancient Egyptians went about preparing their dead.

  3. Disappointing really isn’t really the right word, but I have to admit, I’m surprised that the whole brain-through-the-nose technique didn’t work. From what I’ve learned in the past about mummification (and I’ll admit, some of it did come from popular culture and media) the hook gets inserted up the nose and pulls the brain out. That’s how I’ve always pictured it, and to picture instead liquid brain dripping out orifices of the face is, well, first and foremost disgusting, but secondly quite interesting. Not to mention, this is proof right here that media tends to blow ideas out of proportion, and often gets facts wrong. Of course, we have to remember that since there are very little accounts left of how to actually go through the mummification process, there might be a way to avoid the liquidation process, and Brier (or anyone else) would have to try multiple times to conclude that the whisk technique is the only technique that works. I’m going to assume that the ancient Egyptians were very practiced in their mortuary processes, so there could be plenty of techniques that Brier hadn’t yet thought of. I’m glad you blogged about it, because I couldn’t be there myself to listen to the lecture, and it was interesting to read about some of the things Brier talked about.

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