When you think of a mummy what usually comes to mind?

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What is a mummy?

When you think of a mummy what usually comes to mind?

Most of us usually imagine an Egyptian mummy wrapped in bandages and buried deep inside a pyramid.

While Egyptian mummies are probably the most famous, mummies have been found in countries all over the world, from Greenland to China, from Denmark to Peru.

A mummy is the body of a person (or an animal) that has been preserved after death.

Normally after a person dies, the soft tissue of the body (such as skin and muscle) starts to decay and rot away.

Bacteria breaks down the soft tissue leaving only the bones behind.

Since bacteria need moisture (water) in order to grow, mummification usually happens when the body dries out quickly after death.

Some bodies became mummies because there were favourable natural conditions when they died.

Others were preserved deliberately by skilled workers and buried with great care, usually for religious reasons.

The body may then be so well preserved that we can even tell how the dead person may have looked in life.

Natural Mummies are made when . . . . .

Natural Mummies are usually made in extreme climates where dry heat or freezing cold has stopped the process of decay.

Bodies can be dried out in the severe cold of icy polar regions;

e.g. English sailors found in the Canadian Arctic who died in 1845

by the intense heat in hot, dry desert sands;

e.g. sand mummies found in Egypt, dating back to 3200 B.C. or

they can be freeze-dried by a combination of cold temperatures and very dry winds in mountain caves and cliff tops.

e.g. Inuit boy found on cliffs in Greenland believed to have died in 1475

Bodies can also sometimes be preserved in marshy bogs, where the body stays completely waterlogged so that no air is available for bacteria to grow and therefore the process of decay cannot even get started.

e.g. bog mummies found in Denmark carbon-dated to be nearly 2000 years old

Mummies were made deliberately when . . . . .

Some bodies were preserved intentionally.

Embalming, the process that people use to help preserve a dead body, is used in many cultures worldwide.

There are various ways to achieve preservation, but all methods involve some way to stop decay setting in. Some are a combination of two or more methods.

Bodies can be dried out using smoke,

e.g. Buddhist priests in Japan as late as 1868

body cavities can be stuffed with dry grass and herbs,

e.g. inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands, buried in warm volcanic caves

they can be wrapped in layers of fabric or matting to absorb body fluids,

e.g. Chanca people from Peru, c.1000 – 1470 AD.; or

preserved using chemicals such as natron salts,

e.g. Egyptian mummies dating from 2,700BC to 200 AD.

Many cultures believe in some kind of afterlife (life after death).

By preserving a dead person’s body in recognizable form, they hope to prepare them for a better future.

The ancient Egyptians believed . . . . ..

that preserving a person’s body after death was essential to ensure a safe journey to The Afterlife and to provide a body for the soul to return to if accepted into The Afterlife.
By deliberately mummifying bodies, the ancient Egyptians believed they were doing the very best they could for a person.

So, Why are they called Mummies?

The term is thought to come from the word ‘mummiya’ which is an Arabic word for bitumen or pitch.

When the Arabs invaded Egypt in the 7th century AD and discovered the tombs and their contents, they thought the dark appearance of the bodies, caused by the use of dark resins during the embalming process was actually because they had been dipped in bitumen.

So the word ‘mummiya’, and later mummy was used to describe them, hence mummification.

Whose bodies were mummified?

The first "artificial" Egyptian mummies were made around 2700 B.C. These early efforts at embalming were very basic, but reflected the culture's emerging beliefs about preserving the bodies of the dead in order that they might achieve eternal life.
To begin with, mummification was so expensive that it was a privilege that only the Pharaoh and few nobles could afford.

Everybody else was given a simple sand burial in a one of the huge desert cemeteries or "necropolises" of the time.

But as time went on and the processes of mummification were developed, not only did they become more effective but they also became cheaper.

Therefore it wasn't long before other classes of Egyptians began signing up for mummification, too. By about 1500 B.C. any Egyptian who could afford it could be mummified. 

The process was very time consuming as well as expensive, but it showed how these ancient people really cared for their dead. 

Animals were also mummified too, for religious reasons.

Making a Mummy

Techniques varied slightly according to the place and time that Mummies were made. Over the three thousand years that the Egyptians were making mummies there were on-going subtle changes to the process as the skills and techniques used by the embalmers developed.
However, the three main elements of Egyptian mummy-making remained the same whenever and wherever the mummy was made. . . . .

i.e. to make an Egyptian Mummy the mummy-makers had to:

Clean up the body,

Dry up the body,

Wrap up the body.

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