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Mummification in Ancient Egypt

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 lay before them 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 the soul of the person: to Egyptians the soul was not detachable from the body as is perceived 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 and kept as close to the original as possible. Anatomical knowledge must surely have been acquired through this process as the internal working of the body were understood to the extent that the Egyptians realised that the internal, vital, 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.

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 was never 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 but 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).

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 pre-prepared tomb such as those in the Valley of the Kings/ Queens.

Ancient Egyptian Medicine - pages in ths unit

Egyptian Medicine - Egyptian Doctors and Physicians - Alexandria and the development of Medical training - Surgery in Ancient Egypt - The role of religion in Egyptian Medicine - Mummification - Activities relating to Egyptian and Ancient Medicine - Image gallery

Recommended Books - see the Books section for a wider variety of recommended books on this topic.



Prehistoric and Egyptian Medicine

The first part of the History of Medicine series.

Written by Ian Dawson, this book provides students and adult readers alike with an excellent introduction to Medicine in Ancient Egypt. The text is supported by an excellent selection of images and is an excellent preparation for the GCSE Course in Medicine Through Time whilst also being suitable for interested 'grown ups'.

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