science of mummification

Who Invented Mummification? The Science Of Mummification

Mummification signifies a highly religious practice in ancient cultures. The method was in use by various societies, including the Incas, Chinese, Canary Islanders, Guanches, and ancient Egyptians. They practiced mummification to honor the dead and express significant religious beliefs, particularly about the afterlife.

The science of mummification involves embalming or drying the flesh after death, often using synthetic or natural preservatives. In North America, Spirit Cave’s oldest mummy is over 10,000 years old. Ötzi the Iceman is the oldest known naturally preserved mummy.

The Legacy Of Mummification

In ancient Egypt, the religious practice of mummification was widely accepted by the time of the Old Kingdom. Later, it developed into an established custom during the New Kingdom. The Egyptians believed that after death, a person’s spiritual essence endured and traveled with angelic and demonic creatures. The science of mummification ensured that the body did not decompose.

Non-Egyptian author Herodotus also explains mummification. He divided the process into three stages. It involved removing the brain and internal organs and burying the dead in salt for 70 days. Followed by cleaning, wrapping the body in linen, and coating it with sticky resin. The body was then given to family members who encased it in a human-shaped, hollow wooden coffin.

The earliest Egyptian tombs were created in the Taklimakan Desert, where the body was dehydrated in hot sand. The Chinchorro people of northern Chile developed the technique around 5000 B.C. Producing mummies that resembled sculptures and corpses for the departed’s friends and relatives.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, interest in ancient Egyptian mummies led to the creation of contemporary mummies like Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Eva Peron. Modern preservation methods include wax embalming and plastination, which substitute polymers for water and lipids. 

The Science Of Mummification

The science of mummification consists of an embalming procedure. The ancient Egyptians preserved their mummies by removing organs and placing them in canopic jars. The brain was also removed and sliced into tiny bits, often through a hole in the skull base. The body was initially made dry by being packed with natron. The salt combination collected from dry lake bottoms absorbed water and saponified the body’s fatty tissues. After desiccating, the natron is replaced with sawdust, linen, cinnamon, myrrh, frankincense, and cassia. Even onions were used to enhance the corpse’s odor and protect it from decomposition.

The corpse was prepped and covered in linen bandages, which were then soaked in resin and smeared with oil. Bitumen, coniferous, cedar, and pistacia resins were frequently used. The resins were dried to create a seal. It provided additional defense against deterioration by shielding the body from water, air, and microorganisms. Certain resinic chemicals, particularly phenolic compounds like guaiacol, have antibacterial properties. Wax or resins were also used as plugs to seal gaps and keep moisture out of the cavities in the body.

As early as 3,500 BCE, the Egyptians started mummifying their deceased. It was to preserve the body while the spirit underwent a transition from a material body to a heavenly one. Research published in the journal Nature explains how ancient Egyptians perfected the science of mummification by examining residues left on embalming pots. The chemical composition of residues found on nine beakers and twenty-two red bowls revealed a wide range of natural materials. They included resins, animal fats, and plant and Bitumens (natural petroleum). The study also found that eight of the bowls were marked for heat treatment. And, it was the first time that elemi oil or juniper-cypress tar was found in head embalming procedures.

The majority of materials used in embalming were imported, indicating that Egyptians were significant participants in the global economy. They likely traveled to the Mediterranean, tropical Africa, and the woodlands of southeast Asia in search of resin and elemi. Embalmers were master specialists in the art and science of mummification. The vast network of commerce and highly honed procedure provided a fresh perspective on this ancient Egyptian practice.

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