Why Do Mummies Matter? Because They Talk!



Detail Mummy Cartonnage of Bakenrenes, 26th Dynasty (664-524 BCE) / Houston Museum of Natural Science


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

From a lecture by Dr. Frank Holt, Professor of Ancient History, University of Houston (09.12.2013)

Who, What, When, Where, Why, How

Mummies tend to give many people the “icks”, and many don’t understand why on Earth we mess with them anyway.  Why yank these things out of their tombs for CT-scans and MRIs and x-rays and the like?  What do we gain from this?

The answer is, “A LOT!”  See, they’ve been dead for thousands of years, but mummies talk.  They speak through the advanced technological tools to give us information about themselves and the cultures in which they lived.  Many are found buried in various places in an Egyptian climate, that along with the methods used to preserve them, kept them quite well.

The most famous, of course, have been located in pyramids and tomb complexes with which we are all familiar.  Many are familiar with the pyramids especially because of the Biblical stories about slaves being used to build them – a story not based in any truth.

Egyptians didn’t have many slaves until the New Kingdom period when they were brought back from other lands as a result of empire-building. There was significant slave labor during this time but not during the Old Kingdom with the building of the pyramids when labor was part of annual taxation as citizens provided a certain number of weeks per year in service of the pharaoh.  They were also happy to provide service in an attempt to gain entry into the afterlife as a servant of the pharaoh.


Ramesses II Depicted in a Chariot at the Battle of Kadesh, Relief Carving c.1264-1244 BCE / Abu Simbel Temple Complex, Nubia, Southern Egypt / Image Creative Commons

Ramesses II claimed to be the victor in the Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites c.1275 BCE. He really wasn’t. He was lured into a trap and lost at least one army division, barely escaping with his life. Images such as this from the Abu Simbel temple complex are deceiving.


Tablet of the treaty between Hattushili III of Hatti and Ramesses II of Egypt / Istanbul Museum of Archaeology

We have other documents from the time providing the truth of the battle, specifically the treaty he entered with the Hittites that is now in the Istanbul Museum. It is in cuneiform, not hieroglyphic. The treaty makes it clear that the Egyptians at best fought the Hittites to a draw.


Mummy of Ramesses II / Cairo Museum

Ramesses II lived into his 80s, which was highly unusual at the time. The condition of his teeth – many abscesses from eating bread mixed with wind-blown sand – indicated that he suffered greatly. This was common for ancient Egyptians. His mummy was recovered in 1881 by archaeologists who had until that time never found much in the way of pharaohnic remains in Egypt. They had begun to see items on the market from Egyptian 18th-20th Dynasties and wanted to know what tomb(s) they were coming from. They traced the antiquities back to the region of ancient Thebes.

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Mummies of Hatshepsut (left, 1508-1458 BCE) and Seqenenre II (right, c.1545-1508 BCE) / Creative Commons

Archaeologists remembered an Egyptian family who had discovered a collection of ancient Egyptian mummies taken from tombs by robbers around 1000 BCE. Priests at that time gathered the mummies and hid them. It was in a hidden tomb that these royal mummies were found stacked upon one another, some with identifying toe tags to identify them. This was where archaeologists found Ramesses II. Also found in the hidden tomb were the mummies of Hatshepsut as well as Seqenenre II, who fought and drove out the Hyksos.  The battle axe wounds seen on his head that killed him are a perfect match for Hyksos battle axes of the time.

Traveling south from the Mediterranean was the Nile Delta (the word “delta” coming the Greek letter “D”), Memphis, the Fayum depression and lake, and Thebes (the capital of ancient Egypt). Pharaohs were primarily near Memphis in the Old Kingdom but closer to Thebes in the New Kingdom. These hidden tombs were found in Thebes.

The pharaohs were brought out one by one from the hidden tomb and floated down the Nile on barges, most taken to the Cairo Museum. Egyptian people lined the banks of the Nile to pay homage to the pharaohs on the way to the museum, still acknowledging in modern times as royalty. It was discovered that the mummy of Ramesses II had a fungus causing decay that could only be treated in Paris. Royal mummies are never supposed to leave Egypt, but this was done through a diplomatic arrangement in 1976. His mummy was met by diplomatic representatives in Paris with all the protocols of a living reigning monarch. These pharaohs were still treated as though immortal. Anything brought into Cairo at the time had to be taxed, but there was no code stipulating a tax for ancient mummies and they settled on a compromise that they would be taxed according to their weight in dried fish.


Aerial View of the Valley of the Kings / Creative Commons

The Valley of the Kings is located in a remote desert valley. The pharaohs would have their tombs carved directly into these mountains, and just beyond it is the Valley of the Queens. These are rock-cut tombs – chiseled into solid rock with carved passageways opening into galleries and large chambers in which pharaohs were buried with great pomp and ceremony. Some were very small and others unbelievably large. New Kingdom pharaohs as those who came before didn’t want their tombs robbed and bodies desecrated. Old Kingdom pharaohs never dreamed this would happen, but a huge pyramid is like having a blinking “treasure here” sign. New Kingdom rulers put their tombs in this remote valley to prevent easy access. It turned out that all of them were robbed anyway – one (Tutankhamen’s) less than the others.


Detail Map of Tombs in the Valley of the Kings / Creative Commons

All of the tombs are of different shapes and sizes. The letters “KV” precede each number to stand for “King’s Valley,” and the numbers represent the order in which they have been discovered. The tomb entrances are no more than doorways obscured by rock. They are often difficult to find, purposely so. It doesn’t rain often there, and when it does these dry valleys tunnel water and carry debris that cake over the tomb nearly requiring a jack hammer to get to the entry. Yet all were robbed in antiquity in one fashion or another. Tomb sizes depended on various factors such as the greatness of the pharaoh and the length of
his or her life. King Tut, for example, died very young and there was little time to prepare his tomb. He was also a rather insignificant pharaoh, believe it or not.

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King Tut Mummy and Name Cartouche with Meaning / Creative Commons

The Egyptians at the time referred to Tutankhamen not as we do (King Tut) but as Amuntut.  The god’s name was placed first. He was the son of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten. But Egyptians had rejected the new city of Akhenaten and the monotheistic sun god (Aten) and compelled his successors to do the same. While his father was alive, his name was Tutankhaten, and he later changed it to Tutankamun. This clearly signified a religious change and return to polytheistic tradition. Tut reigned 1333-1323 BCE. He was not his father’s immediate successor due to the attempted intervention of Akhenaten’s generals following his death. Tut’s wife’s name also ended in Aten and was changed to Amun as well. Priests and generals did not want a return to Akhenaten’s monotheistic ideas.


Howard Carter (left) and Lord Canarvon (right) / Creative Commons

Howard Carter was the British Egyptologist who discovered Tut’s tomb in 1922. It was relatively intact. It was robbed only twice soon after his death, and even then not much was taken. Priests had left an inventory of items placed in the tomb, most of which were still there upon Carter’s discovery. The robbers were caught in the act by the priests, and bundles were still in the passageway when it was discovered what they had dropped when they were captured and taken away. They were punished by being impaled. Court records remain with their names. Having lists of New Kingdom pharaohs, archaeologists had been able to locate all of them except Tut. Carter reasoned during his work that Tut must still be in the valley yet undiscovered.

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Portal to Tut’s Tomb (left) and First Images of Tomb (right) / Creative Commons

Lord Carnarvon had spent years searching for Tut’s tomb. Each year Carter would report not having found the tomb and needing more time. In 1922, Carnarvon told Carter he would provide no more funds to continue the search. Feeling he was close, Carter asked for just two more weeks and it was granted. Instead of locating an entry carved into a cliff, he located a portal in the valley floor with a door and passageway. He realized it may lead to an as yet unmarked and undiscovered tomb. He notified Carnarvon that he believed he had found Tut’s tomb and had to wait for the earl to arrive the next year in 1923 to enter. The discovery became an instant sensation. The tomb was found packed floor to ceiling with pharaohnic objects. There were other passageways as well. Carter was also a businessman and made an exclusive deal with the New York Times to access and photograph the tomb, blocking out other reporters.


Tut’s Tomb Layout / themuseum.ca

A staircase led down to the tomb. There was a long passageway, another sealed door, and a series of four chambers – annex, antechamber, burial chamber, and treasury.


3D Illustration of Tut’s Tomb and Contents / Ian Bott

Many wheels were in the tomb from chariots, boxes filled with jewelry, clothing, etc. The body was inside a coffin with a Russian doll configuration – larger to smaller to smaller. It took ten years to excavate the tomb. Two other mummies – a child and a still-born fetus – were in the tomb as well. These were his daughters. When Tut married his wife, they were both teenagers and were encouraged to quickly have children for the sake of succession.


Valley of the Kings KV-5, Tomb of the Sons of Ramesses II / Creative Commons

Remember tombs varied in size.  Whilte Tut’s tomb only had four chambers, this tomb was built just to bury the sons of Ramesses II apart from his own tomb. He had 52 sons, and 13 died before him before one finally outlived him to become pharaoh. Remember this enormous tomb was carved out of solid rock. It had a grand hallway with pillars and many other corridors and rooms radiating out from it. It is still being excavated and we still don’t know what is in all of the rooms. The entire valley is riddled with passageways and tombs, and some passageways and tombs run just over or beneath another.

But back to King Tut and some fantastic stories that have evolved from “messing with the mummies”.

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Carter and Carnarvon Opening the Entry and Newspaper Breaking News of the ‘Curse’ / Creative Commons

Other reporters, blocked by the New York Times’ exclusive access provided by Carnarvon, were looking for another story and simply made one up. Carnarvon, the man who bankrolled Carter’s search and excavation, died in Egypt in early April 1923 – just after opening the tomb. The reporters then created the “curse of King Tut’s tomb.” They were angry, bored, and needed to sell papers.  People would eagerly buy this sort of thing. Carnarvon’s death not long after opening the tomb, they wrote, must have been the result of Tut getting revenge for his sleep being disturbed and his tomb pilfered. Of course many were skeptical, but reporter’s invented a curse that Tut supposedly laid on anyone entering his tomb. An article was written citing Arthur Conan Doyle as stating that death by evil spirits was possible. This was the man who created Sherlock Holmes. If Doyle said it, then it must be true! Doyle actually believed in fairies and magic anyway, so this wasn’t a stretch for him.

The myth persists even today.  People have gone back to create a list of those who worked on the excavation and when they died and claimed many did not live as long as most people. They have one problem – records actually show most of them living longer and fuller lives than was average for people at that time! But we still see articles like the grandson of one of the photographers during the excavation died young and relate it to the “curse.” When Tut’s artifacts were put on display in California, one of the guards had a heart attack and this was of course attributed to the “curse.”

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Trumpet from Tut’s Tomb (left) and James Tappern Playing it in a BBC Recording / Creative Commons

Two trumpets, one bronze and on silver, were found in Tut’s tomb. British musician James Tappern was invited to play the trumpets live on BBC:

It was later announced that the millions who died in World War II must have been caused by this playing of Tut’s trumpets for the first time.  Since they were buried with him, it was speculated that they brought forces of vengeful darkness. However, this wasn’t the first time they were played! Carter himself and others tooted on them during the excavation, and of course Tappern had to practice on them. The bronze trumpet was stolen from the museum, and now there are articles claiming the troubles in the Middle East have been caused by that.


BM 22542 – The “Unlucky Mummy” / Creative Commons

The number assigned to the “Unlucky Mummy” is just the object number for the accession by the British Museum. The story is that this mummy was purchased by Douglas Murray in the 1890s, which happened a lot at the time – tourists buying artifacts from Egypt including whole mummies. He took it home to Britain, but things began mysteriously breaking in each room he where he placed the mummy. He gave it to the British Museum, and they started having trouble with it making noises at night. They gave it to the Met Museum in New York. It was placed on a ship to be sent to the museum in 1912 – a ship that happened to be the Titanic. It was recovered and made it to the Met Museum but caused trouble there. They gave it to the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. It was placed on a ship to go there in 1914 – a ship that happened to be the Empress of Ireland. The mummy was rescued from that sink, but no one in North America wanted it. It was placed on a ship to go back to England in 1915 – the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German torpedo.

Okay, having read all that, are you ready?


The mummy never left the British Museum after its accession. But stories keep being told, and they have an impact on culture.

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Mummy Sarcophagus (left) and Depiction of Osiris and Isis (right) / Creative Commons

The reality is that mummification was a pious act guided by the Egyptian religious belief that death was not final. They were not obsessed with death – they were obsessed with life! They were one of the few peoples in the ancient world who denied the finality of death. They believed that life after death was exactly the same as life in the present as long as the right rituals were performed. Mummification insured the preservation of the person so that life would continue as it had always been. The mythic rituals of Osiris and Isis required that every person be entombed in their native land.

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Depictions of Osiris (left) and the Eye of Horus (right) Creative Commons

Egyptians believed in a divine royal family of siblings who married each other. Osiris and his sister-wife Isis, as well as Seth and his sister-wife Nephthys, are important. The story is that Osiris was an elder and a dominant deity who taught Egyptians agriculture, looked after their welfare, etc. He was much beloved by the people. This made his brother Seth jealous. Seth built a magnificent box and tricked Osiris into laying it, after which he nailed it shut ! Seth dismembered Osiris and scattered his body parts around the world. Isis avenged this crime. She gathered the body parts (except the penis, which was thrown into the sea and eaten by fish). She was able to restore him to life, and he thenceforth ruled the underworld, becoming the lord of the afterlife. Seth had to punished, and this was seen to by Horus – the son of Osiris and Isis. Horus engaged Seth in a great battle and defeated him, but Horus had one eye raked out of his face – the famous “Eye of Horus.” It was regenerated and from then on stood as a symbol of rebirth and vitality. Egyptians thus believed that the body must be preserved in some way based upon Isis having to piece Osiris back together.

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“Ka” (left) and “Ba” (right) / Creative Commons

The figure on the left with the upraised arms on the head (or just upraised arms) represented the “ka” for Egyptians, and a man/bird with wings represented the “ba.” They believed a person was constituted by specific things. The body was a shell for the soul and was still needed in the afterlife. A person’s name was vital – it constituted personhood. The name of the dead was also spoken to keep the person alive, which is why we see their names on everything. The worst thing for an Egyptian was condemnation of name and memory.

The ka, or life-force, was preserved for the afterlife. The ba was the personality, a unique part of personhood hood separate from the ka. Egyptians had a hard time explaining dreams. They were real and otherworldly simultaneously. They believed the person’s “ba” bird flew away during sleep and did things the person saw in dreams. It returned to person upon waking. They believed these four things – body, name, ka, and ba, must be preserved and were so preserved via mummification.

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Mummification and Canopic Jars / Creative Commons

The Egyptian mummification ritual was partly medical and partly religious. The body was taken to an undertaker – a person royally sanctioned to perform the process. The brain was the only organ discarded. They believed the heart was the center of a person’s soul and conscience because didn’t “feel” anything in the head. The heart to them was truly the center of emotions and personhood as the controlling organism of the human body. Hooks were inserted into the brain through the nose. The hooks were moved around to “scramble” the brain, which was drained. The brain cavity was then flushed and filled with scented resins. All other organs had to be preserved. They were removed with an obsidian knife. The surgeon’s only job was to make this incision in the abdomen on the left side. He would then drop the knife and run while others yelled to symbolize displeasure for the gods. These others pulled the internal organs out and sewed up the body.

The organs were placed in four canopic jars – stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines. These jars were placed under the sarcophagus in the tomb with food above because the person would need both in the afterlife.


Egyptian Depiction of Afterlife / Creative Commons

Ancient Egyptians believed the afterlife to be exactly as life in the present where a person returned to the fields, plowed, and did everything as was done while alive. They would enjoy this afterlife if everything had been properly done with their mummification and they had adequately studied for the tests to come after their death. They were also judged for their worthiness based upon how they lived.


Egyptian Depiction of Judgment in Afterlife

The image above shows their view of judgment. This is all overseen by Osiris, the god of the dead, seated on the right (remember that this position and seating portrays importance). Behind Osiris are his sister-wife Isis and their sister Nephthys. Anubis (jackal-headed god) walks the person to the weighing of the heart. The figures on the bloom in front of Osiris are the four sons of Horus representing the four canopic jars. Two pans were used to weigh the person’s heart against a feather. If the heart was evil it would be too heavy and if good it would be lighter than a feather. Ma’at, the goddess of righteousness, good living, and justice plucks a feather from herself and places it in one pan and the person’s heart is placed in another. Thoth, seated at the pans, records the whether the person passes or fails the test.

If the result was failure, head would be tossed to the Devourer (head of crocodile, forefront of lion, rear quarters of hippopotamus) that ate it and condemned the person from continued life. If the result was a pass, the person is then lead by Horus to Osiris. Egyptians believed that they became one with Osiris in death – many sarcophagi inscriptions read, “Behold I have become Osiris” to represent this great union.


Ushtabi Figures / Louvre Museum, Paris

After the body was embalmed and wrapped in pure linen bandages, it was delivered to the family and entombed in what the family could afford – a grand chamber or a pit. Accompanying the body in the tomb were Ushtabi figurines. These were small magical figures with magical formulaic text in hieroglyphic taken from the Book of the Dead. They would magically see to the needs of the dead person in the afterlife, doing any work that the person no longer wanted to do. These were mass produced and many still exist today.

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Roman Tomb Portraits / Creative Commons

Mummification lasted more than 3,000 years and changed over time. Mummies can often be examined to determine the period in which they were mummified based on the techniques used. Some Egyptian tombs had images of the person painted. They were very individualized and placed over the faces. These were from Greek and Roman periods. This painting occurred for only 600 years from c.300 BCE-300 CE, but there are many of them and it is like a portrait gallery of ancient persons at that time and what they looked like. Sometimes couples were buried together and both faces were painted.

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Examination of Mummy of Ankh-Hap / University of Houston

Studies of mummies have progressed quite a lot in the past thirty years. Before modern science, mummies were subjected to highly destructive autopsies. Their bodies were once ground into powder as a medicine to transform their curative “power” into the person consuming it. Advances in modern medicine are now applied to studies of the ancient dead – cat-scans, MRIs, etc.

The University of Houston studied the mummy of Ankh-Hap, which now resides at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. It came in a wooden-shaped coffin with a face painted on the front. But wood was scarce in ancient Egypt and such coffins were reused. The wood that made the coffin was dated to c.1000 BCE, but his bones dated to the 1st century CE during the Graeco-Roman period. This coffin was likely recycled for him centuries after it was made and used for someone else. Alexander the Great was mummified and preserved initially in honey because of the hot climate in Babylon where he died. He was taken to Alexandria and put on display for hundreds of years in a gold coffin. The gold coffin was stolen and glass was used after that. He vanished and hasn’t been seen since.


Those from the past speak to us in many ways – through the artifacts they left behind and have since been archaeologically recovered, the writings on stone tablets, papyrus, etc., and even through themselves, literally!

The excavation and examination of mummies has given us a telescope into history, a way of seeing what we otherwise would not.  Their bodies reveal how they physically lived and the artifacts and texts (including on the wall) buried with them expanded on their civilization.

Following is a documentary from the History Channel about Egypt’s Book of the Dead and the judgment in the afterlife: