A mummy is the corpse of a human being or animal whose soft tissue has been preserved by either accidental or intentional exposure to airlessness, chemicals, extreme cold, or very low humidity. The presence of any of these conditions halts the growth of bacteria and fungi that would normally cause decay. Mummification freezes a moment in time, giving scientists a unique look at aspects of a culture that existed centuries or millennia earlier. Some mummies are so well preserved that autopsies could be performed on them. Details of diet, dress, hairstyle, tattooing, and more can be witnessed in their original context.
The English word mummy is derived from the Latin mumia, which was borrowed from the Arabic mumiyyah (bitumen). The Arabic word was also borrowed, from the Persian word mumiyâ, which also means bitumen. Because unwrapped mummies had blackened skin, it was believed that bitumen, a black, tarry substance that seeps from cracks in the earth naturally in various locations in the Middle East, was used in embalming procedures by ancient Egyptians. Bitumen was widely used for a variety of medical applications in ancient times, so this was not an unreasonable assumption. However, the discoloration was actually caused by resins, used to prepare the body, that blackened over time.
Spontaneous mummification occurs when natural environmental conditions cause preservation without human intervention. It is rare, because very specific conditions are required. Better-known examples include Otzi the Iceman frozen in an Alpine glacier, bog people dumped in the peat bogs of northern Europe where acid and airlessness preserved soft tissue, the Greenland mummies preserved by cold and dry winds, and mummies from deserts in Chile and Egypt where heat and aridity preserved human and animal remains.
In anthropogenic mummification, humans deliberately halt the process of decay for a purpose. Examples of deliberate mummification have been discovered on every inhabited continent on Earth. While ancient Egyptians are the best known for making mummies, they were not the first to do so. The Chinchorros, a sophisticated culture occupying the northern coast of Chile, were embalming and reassembling their dead 7,000 years ago. Further to the north, the Incas used naturally occurring salts and the cold dry air of the region to preserve their mummy bundles. Human sacrifices left for the gods in caves on Andean mountaintops also were mummified in the cold, dry air. The Aleuts off the coast of Alaska processed bodies and dried them in the open air before placing them in caves. Island natives in the South Pacific smoke- cured their dead, covered them with clay, and displayed them in their villages.
Different cultures practiced mummification for different reasons. Some societies believed a person’s spirit remains near after death. Mummification would pacify the spirit, hasten it along on its journey, or keep the spirit near for consultation. The preservation of enemies killed in battle gave status to the victor or filled them with the strength of those that perished. Mummification of leaders in some cultures linked the ruler to the gods and made them immortal. Animals would be mummified for use in rituals or to appease the spirit of prey after a successful hunt.
In most cases, mummification was an expensive endeavor, requiring a significant investment of time, effort, and materials. However varied the reasons for intentional mummification among the cultures of the world, the practice illustrates the power of motivation and the desire to endure through time.
Jill M. Church
See also Afterlife; Anthropology; Egypt, Ancient;
Immortality, Personal; Museums; Rameses II;
Aufderheide, A. C. (2003). The scientific study of mummies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Chamberlain, A. T., & Pearson, M. P. (2001). Earthly remains: The history and science of preserved human bodies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cockburn, A., Cockburn, E., & Reyman, T. (1998). Mummies, disease, and ancient cultures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Reid, H. (2001). In search of the immortals: Mummies, death, and the afterlife. New York: St. Martin’s.