What Is the Story of the Mummy?
The Ministry of State for Antiquities is the name of the government group responsible for preserving the culture and heritage of Egypt. In October 2019, the ministry sent out a special invitation: Meet us at the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut.
The Egyptian and international press and all the other invited guests arrived at the grand stone temple beneath high cliffs on the west bank of the Nile River near the city of Luxor. Dr. Khaled al--Anany, minister of tourism and antiquities, and Dr. Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, had an important announcement to make.
Everyone streamed into a large white tent set up on the temple grounds. The press jostled forward, cameras raised.
Then eight experts on ancient history wearing white lab coats and plastic gloves slowly, carefully, and dramatically . . . unsealed a coffin that hadn’t been opened in three thousand years!
The crowd cheered and clapped as the coffin lid, brightly painted with symbols and hieroglyphs, was lifted off. The inner coffin was also decorated in rich colors. Inside lay a perfectly preserved cloth--wrapped mummy.
The mummy was one of thirty uncovered in a nearby burial ground called El-Assasif. The find included the mummified remains of twenty--three men, five women, and two children. The mummy coffins were stacked on top of one another in two alternating levels: eighteen above, twelve underneath.
The El--Assasif mummy collection was the first to be discovered by an all--Egyptian archaeological team. It was also one of the largest finds in decades and the first in Luxor since the end of the nineteenth century. Even more remarkable: The mummies had escaped tomb raiders and grave robbers for three thousand years! Every one of the coffins was still sealed.
Thirty seemed to be a magic number for the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The week before, another of their teams excavated a different ancient area in Luxor’s Valley of the Monkeys. There they found the remains of thirty workshops and a large kiln for firing ceramics. Archaeologists think this was where the many decorative items, furniture, and pottery that were buried with mummies in royal tombs had been made.
Coverage of the finds at El--Assasif and the Valley of the Monkeys was shown on television stations and spread over social media. Photos and videos were instantly available.
Mummies make good news stories. That’s because people in the twenty--first century are still fascinated by mummification, a process that is thousands of years old. Chapter 1: Matters of Life and Death
Most people would agree on two basic facts: All living things die, and dead things decay and rot.
Usually when humans, animals, and other living things die, their bodies decompose, or begin to break down. Microscopic life-forms called bacteria help with this process. They break down the body’s cells, muscles, organs, and tissues, like skin. A decomposing body smells and oozes, which attracts hungry insects. Eventually it turns into liquid. This life--and--death cycle provides food for other living things and enriches the soil.
Unless the cycle is broken.
Mummies are bodies that have not
fully decayed. They can still have hair on their heads or skin on their bones! A body that has gone through the mummification process does not decompose all the way.
Mummies have been found on every continent. Some are accidental, or natural, mummies created by the environment in which the dead body came to rest. In the right very hot, very cold, or very marshy area, a dead body will be preserved and keep some of its solid state.
The world’s oldest frozen mummy is nicknamed Ötzi the Iceman. In 1991, two mountain hikers in the Alps discovered the 5,300--year--old male mummy inside a melting glacier. The body had been preserved by layers of ice and snow. The mummy still had bones, organs, and skin that showed sixty--one tattoo lines! Scientists think these marks may have been from a healing treatment.
Ötzi carried a valuable copper ax and some of the oldest hunting equipment yet found. Two fleas were discovered in his clothes. In 2001, X--rays showed a flint arrowhead still in his left shoulder. Ötzi had been murdered! Someone had shot him in the back. He fell and bled to death. Scientists were even able to determine Ötzi’s blood type: O positive.
Two other natural mummies called Gebelein Man and Gebelein Woman were buried near each other in shallow graves in the Egyptian desert some five thousand years ago. Each body was curled up on its side, with elbows and knees drawn together.
The decaying process requires water. But the Gebelein remains were covered over by dry sand. Hot winds blew across the burial site, and the sun beat down on it. The bodies dehydrated, which means dried up. Their wrinkled skin pulled tight over the bones of their skeletons. Six of these natural mummies were uncovered at the same site in the 1890s.
A moist area doesn’t seem like the right place for mummification, but some amazing natural mummies have arisen from boggy graves! A bog is a type of wetland that has peat. Peat looks like spongy dirt. It forms when layers of dead plants build up in the damp bog over a very long time.
Bog mummies are often found by people digging up peat to burn for fuel. That’s how Tollund Man was uncovered in 1950 on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. He’s wearing an animal-skin cap. His gentle face is so well preserved, you can see stubble on his chin and wrinkles on his forehead. His eyelids are closed as if he just lay down for a quick nap and kept sleeping for 2,400 years!
Tollund Man’s full body was squishy but preserved. There were still organs inside. Bogs have a lot of acid, released by the peat and by a type of moss that also grows there. These bog acids soak the skin, hair, nails, and body organs and help prevent decay. The acids help stop bacteria growing. So does the lack of oxygen in a bog. The bog body mummifies rather than decays.
Bog mummies have been found mainly in Northern Europe, where winter and spring are cold, which keeps the bog cool. Most bog mummies show that the person was killed and tossed into the bog. The reasons why are not always clear. It could be for punishment or sacrifice. Tollund Man was found with a rope around his neck. He had been hanged before he was laid in the bog.
The mummies uncovered in Europe and North America are mainly natural mummies. The world’s oldest natural mummy is the Spirit Cave Mummy discovered in 1940 in a cave in northwest Nevada. It is now known to be 10,600 years old. The hot, dry air of the cave helped mummify the male body, which was wrapped in a rabbit--skin blanket. DNA tests show that he was Native American. In 2018, members of the Fallon Paiute--Shoshone tribe reburied his remains.
Accidental mummies form naturally in the right burial conditions. But there is another kind of mummification process—-and it is definitely not
an accident! Chapter 2: Ready for Eternity
Artificial mummies have been carefully preserved on purpose. They are corpses that were embalmed, or specially treated to stop or slow down decay.
Ancient cultures around the world practiced mummification. People figured out how to use different methods and materials to embalm their dead. Bodies could be hollowed out, the skin stuffed with ash, grass, sand, or cloth, and then all of it covered with resin or plant sap. Corpses could also be dried out in hot sunlight or smoked. They could be freeze-dried in extremely dry, cold weather or “tanned” like leather, using chemicals found in nature.
People then buried or stored these preserved bodies in special or hidden places to keep the mummies safe and intact. Scientists think mummification is connected to people’s religious beliefs. How bodies were preserved and what objects were buried with them reflected ideas about a crossover from life to death to eternal life. Mummies were important and usually sacred to the people who made them—-and still are to their descendants.
The oldest artificial mummies in the world are really old—-seven thousand years old!
And they weren’t
found in Egypt.
The Chinchorro people lived along the coast of South America, from southern Peru to northern Chile. This is part of the Atacama Desert plateau, one of the driest places on earth. Around 5000 BC, the Chinchorro started mummifying dead men, women, and children.
In the earliest Chinchorro mummies, the skin and organs were first removed with stone tools and sharpened pelican beaks. The body was stuffed with plants, feathers, and other material; sticks supported the spine, arms, and legs. Then the skin went back on. The mummy was painted black and given a wig and a clay mask with eye, nose, and mouth holes. Other mummification methods covered the outside of the preserved body with a red color or with clay. Scientists think the Chinchorro honored their mummies by keeping them upright in homes or villages, before eventually burying them.
Thousands of years later another South American culture, the Inca, also practiced mummification. The Inca were a powerful empire of the fifteenth century. Their emperor lived in the Inca capital, Cuzco, eleven thousand feet up in the Andes Mountains of Peru. The Inca embalmed their emperors and their wives as a form of ancestor worship. They believed these royal mummies still had the power of living rulers. The Inca emperor mummies were kept in temple rooms, often in a seated position. They were richly dressed, wore gold jewelry, and were surrounded by other treasures. They even had servants to fan away flies. The Inca paraded these mummies for special ceremonies and consulted them about crops and marriages. Family members interpreted their “answers.”
In 1995, a well--preserved natural Inca mummy was discovered more than twenty thousand feet up in the Andes. A volcano had erupted nearby. Its hot ash helped uncover “Juanita.” The five--hundred--year--old mummified Inca girl wore a red--and--white shawl and a hat made from bird feathers. She had a handkerchief in her pocket; gold, jewelry, and even little clay llamas had been buried with her. The cold, thin air at high altitude froze her solid, inside and out. She was nicknamed “Ice Maiden.” Scientists have determined that Juanita, like other child mummies found near her, was a sacrifice to the Inca mountain gods.
Two years earlier, on the other side of the world, the “Siberian Ice Maiden” had been found in a grave in western Siberia near the Russian--Chinese border. She was embalmed and buried there in the fifth century BC. Her body was stuffed with grass, peat, bark, and wool and her eye sockets filled with fur; there were several tattoos of fantastical horned creatures on her arm, shoulder, and thumb. She wore striped wool--and--silk clothes. The mummy had been placed in a very long carved log coffin so that her three--foot--high felt headdress would fit. The coffin was inside a wooden burial chamber, along with the remains of six horses, there to carry the princess to her afterlife. The tree rings on the coffin and burial chamber helped scientists determine when “The Lady,” as the mummy is sometimes called, was entombed: nearly 2,500 years ago.
Mummification methods varied from place to place and people to people. But one ancient culture took the practice to a whole other level!
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