Quirky facts about Mummies & Tombs

  • The Mummy Cure: In the 1500s, Europeans ground Egyptian mummies into powder to make medicine.
  • Strapped for cash? Ancient Egyptians sometimes removed coffins from tombs and re-used them by those who couldn’t afford a new one.
  • Eternal life…or not. Ancient Egyptians mummified about 70 million people. Most of the mummies we have found are now lost or destroyed.
  • Magical Minions: Egyptians tombs often contained small figurines called shawabtis, who would magically come to life to do menial labour for the deceased. Some tombs contained 365 shawabtis, one for every day of the year.
  • The Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed of over 2.3 million limestone blocks and was the tallest structure on earth for nearly 4,000 years.
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Mummification 101
In earliest times, the Ancient Egyptians buried their dead — without coffins — in pit graves dug into the desert sand. Desiccated by direct contact with the hot dry sand, the remains were preserved by nature. Wood coffins then came into common use, in part to protect the bodies from scavenging animals. No longer nestled directly in the drying sand, the corpses were more prone to decay.

In response, the Ancient Egyptians began wrapping the bodies in resin-soaked bandages. However, the wrappings only masked the underlying decay. Experiments continued until Dynasty 4 (2630–2524 BCE) when mummification as we understand it today was developed. Once established, the technique remained in use (with some variation) for the next two thousand years.

In the mummification process, the immediate goal was to dry the body — thus protecting it from rot — and to preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the physical appearance of the deceased.

Mummification involved a number of steps:

First, the internal organs were removed through a large incision on the side of the body. The lungs, liver, stomach and intestines were embalmed with natron (a type of salt) and placed in individual containers known as canopic jars.

The heart was usually left in the body cavity because it was seen as the seat of thought and emotion. The brain, on the other hand, was considered of no importance. It was usually removed through the nose with the aid of a hook-shaped tool.

The eviscerated body cavity was then packed with natron and left to dry, usually for 40 to 70 days. Once desiccated, the body was anointed inside and out with natural oils and spices, and the cavity was packed with resin-soaked linen to help replicate the body’s original shape. The body was then coated with hot liquid resin and fully wrapped in treated linen. The bandaging required hundreds of yards of cloth and usually took about 15 days to complete. The mummy was then placed in a coffin and eventually entombed in a burial chamber.

The mummification process, aided by the naturally hot and dry Egyptian climate, preserved many of these ancient remains until modern times.  

This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Civilization.