Mummification and Medical Knowledge

Mummification in Ancient Egypt

The process of mummification led to the ancient Egyptians having an understanding of anatomy. Through mummification they were aware of the internal organs, though not of the functions of them. This allowed doctors to record findings and develop methods of surgery based on anatomical knowledge. These findings were recorded on papyrus and taught to doctors.

The mummification process as shown in ancient Egyptian artwork.
The mummification process as shown in ancient Egyptian artwork.

Mummies and the process of mummification had a great impact on the amount of knowledge that Egyptians had of the body. The ancient Egyptians believed that after the end of their life on earth that there was a journey to an afterlife. In order to arrive safely in the afterlife, the body of the deceased had to be in a fit condition to house their soul. To Egyptians the soul was not detachable from the body as is believed by many modern religions. In order to enable this journey, the Egyptians had to ensure that the bodies of the dead were treated with the utmost respect. Anatomical knowledge must surely have been acquired through this process.  The Egyptians realised that the internal organs would rot prior to the external parts of the body. This resulted in a process being developed to preserve the body that was extraordinarily lengthy and complex.

Canopic Jars were used in Ancient Egypt. They held the stomach, intenstines, liver and lungs after they were removed during the embalming process.
Canopic Jars were used in Ancient Egypt. They held the stomach, intenstines, liver and lungs after they were removed during the embalming process.

The Afterlife

The body HAD to be preserved to reach the afterlife. Such was the strength of this belief that much time and energy was put into experimentation with preservation techniques. Religious belief was at the centre of the whole process. It almost certainly was not the intention of the Egyptians to use the bodies to advance their knowledge of the human body. Embalming and mummification were intended solely to ensure a safe journey to the afterlife. A result of this dedication to ensuring safe passage to the afterlife is that it is impossible to describe a ‘typical’ mummification or embalming procedure as it changed gradually over the years. In general the following would form part of the process:

The body would be cut open and the heart, lungs, liver and spleen removed. These would be placed in canopic jars close to the coffin (sarcophagus). The brain would be removed from the head by inserting a hook through the nostril and pulling it out through the nose. The brain was then thrown away (some Egyptian physicians believed that the brain was responsible for pumping blood and that the heart was the organ responsible for thought and emotion, hence it being discarded).

Ancient Egyptian Sargophasus.
Ancient Egyptian Sargophasus.

The space in which there had once been the vital organs would be stuffed and the body sewn back up.

The body would be left to dry and then coated in a substance called Natron which acts as a preservative (Sodium based chemical, not dissimilar from Salt in some respects). After a period of drying out of approximately 60 days the body would then be wrapped in cloth. This final procedure being the ‘mummification’ process. Each stage of the process was carefully managed and prescribed to the priests who undertook the tasks. (These priests often being employed solely to embalm).

Bodies of the rich and wealthy would then be taken to a prepared tomb such as those in the Valley of the Kings/ Queens.