Bard (2007) reviews the process of mummification:
“There is evidence of efforts to preserve the body before the beginning of Dynastic times, and the techniques of mummification evolved over many centuries. By New Kingdom times the mummification process achieved a high degree of preservation… the techniques of mummification reached a high point during the 21st Dynasty” (p. 251).
There are two major questions which present themselves after a short discussion of mummification, its adoption and perfection. 1) How did practitioners measure the success of their techniques? Did they practice on animals or check in on previously processed mummies to confirm experiments or alterations/improvements to the process? 2) Why was there an emphasis on retention of the body form? The whole body was not required for this (brains and viscera removed), so how does this altered body fit in with the ideology?
Origins of mummification
First, let us consider the naturally occurring conditions in Egypt and how they would affect a dead body: extreme heat in the Nile Valley leads to rapid decomposition. A family member passing away in the house would be very noticeable (smell, bloat, discolor) very quickly. But the extreme nature of the heat of the desert might serve as a deterrent to the insects that would otherwise accelerate decomposition (flies that lay eggs on corpses have a heat ceiling of about 100* fahrenheit – when it’s hotter than this, they aren’t flying, so they don’t find bodies to oviposit on).
The arid desert environment may also preserve bodies – natural mummification is seen in desert skeletal collections dating from Predynastic times. Natural mummification can occur in as little as a few months, as long as there is sufficient heat and air flow to desiccate the tissues. But the mechanics of this (heat and airflow) are not the processes used by Egyptian priests. How were successful anthropogenic (man-made) methods developed? The body was mummified during a process that lasted over two months, entombed, and that was that (except for the spirit going to and from the tomb to receive the nourishment left for it in the mastaba or pyramid). If it’s priests doing the mummifying and who have access to the holy spaces, they would theoretically have access to earlier preparations, but for royal mummies, multiple coffins/sarcophagi would be too heavy to remove in order to check on the body.
The second, and perhaps more socio-culturally relevant issue is not related to the mechanics at all. It is a question of intention and rationale. Rakita and Buikstra (2008) reconsider the cultural convention of mummification as it relates to Hertz’s rites of passage. “We prefer to view mummification as a method for sustaining the position of the soul in the liminal phase… For the Andeans, death as a culturally defined event simply did not exist for some individuals” (105). The presence of the dead in a continually liminal stage puts them in a place of great power as conduits between the world of the living and that of the dead. As divine king, the pharaoh was already an earthly deity. Perhaps it was important to maintain his earthly presence for the benefit of order in the country.
In any case, treatment of the dead and their continued interaction with the living is clearly an important factor in Egyptian ideology. The treatment of the body in particular can demonstrate how certain beliefs were enacted by past peoples. Although scholars have recreated in great detail the mechanics of postmortem processing of royal bodies, fitting this process into the ancient Egyptian worldview has only recently been considered from a theoretical perspective.
*Side note: keep in mind, these practices are not so strange. Modern American convention preserves the body chemically for a wake/funeral and great care is taken to ensure the body decays as little as possible (iron casket lain in a cement vault). Although it didn’t start out this way, modern (Christian) Americans rationalize this process as a way to retain the body for eventual return of the soul at the Resurrection.
Bard, K. A. (2007). Introduction to the archaeology of ancient Egypt. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
Hertz, R. (1960). A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death. Death & The right hand (pp. 27–86). Free Press.
Rakita, G. F. M., & Buikstra, J. E. (2008). Corrupting Flesh: Reexamining Hertz’s Persective on Mummification and Cremation. In G. F. M. Rakita, J. E. Buikstra, L. A. Beck, & S. R. Williams (Eds.), Interacting with the Dead: Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millennium (pp. 97–106). Gainesville: University Press of Florida.