Mummification is generally considered to be the artificial process by which the bodies of (usually notable) persons, as well as those of sacred animals, are intentionally preserved after death by treating them with various substances such as spices, gums, bitumen or natron. The practice seems to have been attempted by various peoples at various times throughout the world, but most were little more than crude attempts at an art that attained its greatest sophistication under the ancient Egyptians.
Not only did the ancient Egyptians achieve outstanding success in their preservation of the dead and their raising of the art of mummification to a state of virtual perfection, but they also seem to have developed it into an industry practised continuously for almost 4,000 years. Yet, like those other gigantic monuments to Egyptian civilization, the Pyramids, mummification is still one of Egypt’s many mysteries. No one today is certain when, how, and apart from its later religious significance, even why the practice originated. None of the ancient Egyptians’ records that have so far been discovered has been of much assistance in answering these questions. Even the earliest of these implies that the practice was already well established, if not perfected.
Early Egyptian Mummies
At least in part, the explanation as to the origins of mummification may lie in the climatic conditions of the country itself. The combination of Egypt’s dry climate and the hot desert sands in which the earliest Predynastic dead were buried is believed to have caused the bodies to dry out and mummify naturally. The graves of this early period were mostly shallow and the bodies were covered simply with an animal skin or woven mat. As their moisture content (about three-quarters of a human body) was absorbed by the surrounding dry sand, bacteria could not breed and cause decay, and so the bodies were preserved. Modern scholars and archaeologists who have uncovered such early burials have found almost perfectly preserved, skin-covered skeletons, often with some of the hair remaining upon their heads.
Isolation from the sand and its preserving effects as burial customs became ever more elaborate, with the building of chambers for the dead to rest in, towards the end of the Predynastic Period is thought to have inspired the ancient Egyptians to begin attempting to preserve the dead by artificial means. Information about the first three Egyptian Dynasties remains limited and is often contradictory. However, anecdotal evidence dated to the Second Dynasty and the reign of the fifth king (whose name has been variously transcribed as Sethenes, Sened or Senedj), apparently indicates that the Egyptians had a well-enough established system of burial customs and beliefs, as well as sufficient anatomical knowledge, to at least attempt the mummification of bodies by this stage.