Dear Dr. Universe,
How do you make a mummy?
— Michael, 7
When we think of mummies, we might imagine the kind from ancient Egypt wrapped up in linen. But there are lots of ways to make mummies — and they can even form in nature.
That’s what I found out from my friend, Shannon Tushingham, an archaeologist at Washington State University and director of the WSU Museum of Anthropology.
In ancient Egypt, priests were usually in charge of making a mummy.
They used a special hook to pull out the brain. They put the brain in a jar to help preserve it. They put the lungs, liver, intestines and stomach in jars, too. But the heart was left in place.
The ancient Egyptians believed it was the heart, not the brain, that was the center of someone’s being and intelligence.
They also used a lot of salt to preserve the body, more linens to help the body keep its shape, and several yards of linen strips to wrap the body from head to toe.
“They had this down to a science,” said Tushingham, who was inspired as a kid when she got to see King Tut’s mummy.
The whole process of making a mummy would take about 70 days.
But the making of a mummy was about more than just preserving a body. The ancient Egyptians also believed they were preparing someone for an afterlife.
Inside the tombs
Along with the jars of organs, people would place items with the mummy, like furniture, food, games and other things their loved one might enjoy. The mummy might also get a decorative mask or be put in a stone case called a sarcophagus.
We have learned a lot about the process from hieroglyphics, the symbols that Egyptians used to write. The stories they wrote also tell us about mummified baboons, beetles, falcons, crocodiles and lots and lots of cats, which they worshiped. Just saying.
Mummies in nature
Tushingham said we can also find mummies out in nature. One mummy that archaeologists get excited about is Ötzi, otherwise known as the Iceman.
He died in the mountains about 5,000 years ago and his body has been well-preserved. They even found a little bit of brain tissue. You can see his tattoos and archeologists even studied his hair, which gave clues about what he liked to eat.
Researchers have also found mummies in bogs or wetlands that have a lot of moss. These bogs can be found everywhere from Denmark to Florida and sometimes conditions can be just right to mummify a body. These mummies have been called “bog bodies.”
While we’ve found mummies in Egyptian tombs, we’ve also found them underground. The hot, dry conditions and chemistry of the dirt can help preserve bodies, too.
Tushingham added that archeologists take great care when working with mummies or any kind of remains. The bodies are sacred, she said, and we are still finding them today.
Perhaps one day you’ll become an archeologist and find a mummy or study hieroglyphics to help us learn even more about life in the past.
— Dr. Universe
Have a science question? Ask Dr. Wendy Sue Universe, WSU’s resident science cat and writer, by email at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu, on her website at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu, via Twitter at @AskDrUniverse or at facebook.com/AskDrUniverse.