Mummies are another artifact from an ancient culture that has come to represent the complete opposite of their original purpose. From Herodotus to Hollywood, mummies have fascinated us. Medieval doctors used mummy wrappings in their medicine (along with other, even more obscure and ineffective ingredients). When Napoleon invaded Egypt in the 18th century, he brought with him a host of scientists who were determined to unlock the secrets of Ancient Egypt, including how mummies were manufactured. Nineteenth century travelers didn't feel that their journey was complete unless they could bring back a mummy (or two or three) for the family castle. In the 1920’s the curse of Tutankhamen became a media sensation. Art from Egypt has influenced artists from Ancient Greece onward.
The dry air and desert sand of Egypt probably preserved the first mummies, but as Egyptian civilization became more sophisticated, so did their methods of preserving the dead. Here, as in so many areas, the Greeks Herodotus and Diodorus, understood the process centuries before the Europeans did. There are three different methods, from the cheapest to the most expensive. In the low-cost version (the Wal-Mart of Mummification, if you will), the intestines were cleaned and the body was placed in natron, a natural salt drying agent. In the second type, the corpse was injected with oil of cedar before it was placed in the bath, although modern authorities question the word “cedar” indicating that there is some doubt as to how this “oil” was employed.
The third type, the most elaborate and the most expensive as used during the New Kingdom – the time of the heretic king Akhenaton and the boy king Tutankhamen. All of the internal organs, except for the heart and kidneys, were removed. The brain was drawn out through the nostrils and the viscera were removed and all these organs were put in canopic jars, The empty body cavity was cleaned and anointed and natron was applied as in the other two methods. Eventually, the body was cleaned, and wrapped in fine linen, torn into strips and wound around limbs and body. For kings, queens and the upper class, jewelry was placed into the body cavity and the whole edifice was then placed within the mummy case(s), painted, gilded and launched into eternity.
What is it about Egypt that fascinates us so? Is it because we see ourselves in them? This was a society so in love with life that they wanted to continue its pleasures after death. Their art still has the power to fascinate and charm us? Or is it the tantalizing mysteries of mummies, which, now due to the power of modern technology, can teach us more about them and enable us to somehow, touch a part of our collective heritage?
At the De Young, the exhibition Very Postmortem: Mummies and Medicine (Opening on Halloween!) explores the modern scientific examination of mummies. Among the artifacts on view will be a very-well-preserved, 2,500-year-old ancient Egyptian mummy, known as Irethorrou. CT scans done by scientists at Stanford Medical School shed light on Irethorrou's physical attributes and the cause of his death. The scans provide depth and scientific background to the exhibition and contribute to a three-dimensional "fly-through" of the mummy as well as a forensic reconstruction of his head. The exhibition also includes a variety of ancient artifacts that date from 1450 B.C. to A.D. 150.
More reading: Barbara Mertz: Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs. A popular history of Ancient Egypt.