June 30, 2010

Metal History: Mummification

Metal History

Mummies – not the kind that tuck you in at night and lend you money for sweets on Fridays, but the kind that are corpses preserved by either accidental or deliberate chemical means. Mummies turn up on metal album covers, in cheesy metal songs and on cheesy b-grade horror flicks which we love to hate to love. Disgusting and fascinating, mummies provide archaeologists many clues about life and death in ancient civilization, and their grisly remains look so grymm.

The word mummy comes from a latin root – derived from an earlier Persian word meaning “bitumen”. Yep, bitumen. It was once thought that bitumen caused the blackened skin found on Egyptian mummies. We now know otherwise.


Mummy of Ramses II

The Ancient Egyptians deliberately preserved their dead using a complex mummification process – which I’ll get to in a moment. But before the Egyptians made mummification the new fad in post-death elective surgery, nature had been performing her own mummification.

A corpse can become mummificed by natural processes by being exposed to extreme conditions, either cold (in the case of icemen) or hot, dry heat (in the case of desert mummies). Chemical reactions caused when bodies are buried in peat or salt can also create mummies – just look at the gruesome Iron Age bog bodies excavated throughout Europe.

Humans aren’t the only creatures who can become mummies – in the Judith River formation in Montana, scientists have been unearthing remarkable, partially mummified dinosaur skeletons. “Leonardo”, a fully-articulated, mummified skeleton of a Brachylophosaurus (a mid-sized hadrosaur) is considered pretty much the most awesome dinosaur discovery ever made, ever. They’ve also found “Roberta” and “Peanut” (almost-complete skeletons with some skin impressions) in the same valley.

Egyptian Mummification Process

Curse of The Mummy's Tomb

Curse of the Mummy's Tomb - Hammer Horror. I own this on DVD.

You’ve probably read this in your Horrible History books, but if not, I shall set down for your visceral pleasure, the process of mummification, Pharoah-style.

The earliest known Egyptian mummy “Ginger” (a ginga), dates to 3500BC. She was buried in the sand with some pottery vessels – dry sand naturally mummifies bodies, so it’s actually uncertain whether her mummification was intentional or not, but the pottery suggests it might have been. Researchers think the Egyptians started off burying their dead in the sand, then the jackels came along and dug up the corpses, leaving partially mummified relatives sticking up everywhere, probably giving rise to many of the Egyptian resurrection beliefs. Thinking to save their rellies from the jackals, the enterprising Egyptians started burying their dead in coffins, but discovered to their horror bodies inside coffins not exposed to the hot, dry sands turned into body goop … and conspicuous wealth and several hundred years or religious development later, you’ve got pyramids and mastabas and mummification.

Depending on how wealthy you were, you could opt for one of three levels of mummification. The bargain mummy treatment meant the embalmers washed the inside of the body with a solvent, left it to pickle for seventy days, and then returned it to the rellies. The next step up meant making syringes of cedar-oil and filling the stomach of the corpse with the oil, not cutting it open and taking out the intestines, but inserting the oil through the anus and stopping it flowing out. Then they would soak the body in spices for the prescribed number of days, on the last of which they remove the cedar-oil, and with it, all the dissolved stomach and intestines. They then hand the corpse back to the family for burial.

The most expensive, or “royal” treatment transpired as follows:

    The dead dude is take to the “place of purification” and his luckless corpse washed with sweet oils and Nile water (which was probably a lot cleaner and nice-smelling back in the day).
    Next, the embalmer takes a long rod with a hook on the end and shoves it up the dead person’s nose, pushing until it broke through into the brain. He wriggles it around a bit till the brain becomes mush, and uses the hook and another instrument that looks like an ice cream sundae spoon to scoop the brain out.
    Sometimes, instead of scooping the brain out, the embalmers would chop the head off, drain the brain out through the neck, and bandage the head back on. It’s not like anyone would notice.
    The brain – thought to be useless – is thrown away.
    The embalmer makes a cut in the left-hand side and removes the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines, soaking them in baths of natron to dry them out. He then places these in their own, separate canopic jars (in later practises these were wrapped in linen and returned to the chest cavity). The dead person needs to carry these with him into the afterlife.
    He leaves the heart – though to be the centre of a man’s thought and soul – inside the body, because he needs this with him. His heart will be weighed against the “feather of truth”.
    The embalmers stuff the empty chest cavity with rags, natron, and maybe a couple of amulets, cover the body in natron and allow it to dry for 40 days.
    The body is uncovered, washed again with Nile water, and covered with sweet oils – these keep the skin elastic.
    Now, the wrapping. Head and shoulders are wrapped first, then the individual fingers and toes. Then the limbs. Embalmers place amulets – like ankhs and statues of Horus – between the layers to ward off bad spirits.
    A priest reads some mumbo-jumbo.
    The arms and legs are wrapped together, and a scroll containing text from the “Book of the Dead” is placed in the mummy’s hands.
    Now the whole body is wrapped and all the bandages coated with liquid resin.
    A final linen shroud is wrapped around the body – it’s placed in the first of (wealth-depending) many coffins. There’s a funeral. Someone cries. The mummy goes into his tomb and either goes off to have his heart weighed against the feather of truth of lies around for all eternity thinking “Well, that’s a bugger.”

Or, he would, if they hadn’t fed his brain to the palace kitten.

I got to see unwrapped mummies – including the famous Ramses II, in the Egyptian Museum. I even got to see Tutankamun, hanging out in his tiny tomb in the Valley of the Kings. If you ever get the opportunity, go and look at a mummy – not a mummy sarcophagus – but the actual mummy. It’s weird gazing at someone who died 5000 years ago and being able to discern their every feature. Eerie. I love it.

If we were to form a metal band from ressurected mummies, Ramses II would be the aging but charismatic lead singer.

Bog Bodies

Another cool sub-set of the mummy class are the bog bodies – corpses preserved in the sphagnum bogs of Northern Europe. The conditions of the bog mean much of the body’s bone breaks down, but their skin essentially turns to leather and they retain all of their hair, teeth, fingernails and clothing. I studied bog bodies are part of my archaeology degree and actually got to work in a peat bog in my honours year (no bog bodies, but I did nearly destroy a priceless eel net with my shovel. Ever wondered why I’m not an archaeologist anymore? Yeah, now you know :)).

Most bog bodies come from the Iron Age. At this time – people lived in small communities and were predominantly agriculturalists, and traded with the Romans, who hadn’t yet come through to rape and pillage them all. Desipite the huge geographic spread and various traditions and cultures, these people shared several common beliefs – namely, some kind of connection to bogs. They regularly threw votive offerings – talismans, drinking messels, weaponry – into the bogs, and it seems they also threw people in, too. Archaeologist P.V. Glob thinks these are votive sacrifices to the gods of fertility, and since he has a name synonymous with peat (I’ve worked in peat, and it certainly is “globby”) I’m rather inclined to agree with him.


Tollund Man - He was strangled. Police originally thought he was a recent murder victim.

Many bod bodies show signs of violent death – being stabbed, bludgeoned, hanged, or some grueling combination of all three. Many had their heads chopped off. Some – like Old Groughon Man, who had deep cuts under his nipples – show signs of torture. After the bodies were thrown into the peat, the people placed sticks or forked branches over the body to keep it down under the peat.

Interestingly, most bog bodies seem to be members of the upper classes – they have manicured fingernails, little sign of hard labour on their hands or limbs, and they had good health and nutrition. Now, though, they’re quite globby and gooey, and I think Tollund Man would make a great bassist in the Mummification Metal band.

Other Notable Mummies

otzi the iceman

Otzi the iceman

Otzi – a well-preserved natural mummy found by two German tourists in the ice between the border of Austria and Italy – lived about 5000 years ago. High levels of copper and arsenic in Otzi’s hair led scientists to believe he was involved in copper smelting. 57 tattoos (made from dipping a needle and thread in copper and then pulling the thread under the skin) adorn his body, and his full kit – clothing, tools and remnents of food – were also preserved. His last meal was deer meat, a little fruit, and bread.

Initially, scientists assumed he died from exposure during a winter storm. X-rays revealed Otzi had an arrowhead lodged in his shoulder and a small tear in his coat. The arrow had been removed before Otzi’s death, and further examination revealed cuts on his hands, wrist and chest, and some trauma indicating he’d been knocked in the head. Researchers don’t know if his death was caused by falling and hitting his head on a rock, or if someone knocked him down. Cool, icy Otzi would make an excellent lead guitarist for our mummification band.

Now, we just need a drummer.

What about a buddhist? Some buddhist monks believe one can modify their own flesh in death. “Buddhists say that only the most advanced masters can fall into some particular condition before death and purify themselves so that his dead body could not decay.”

Mahayana monk might know his time of death, and so begin a strict diet of salt, nuts, seeds, pine bark and unshi tea, leave a last testament, and have their students bury him sitting in lotus posture inside a tomb with drying agents (wood, paper or line) and surrounded by bricks. After about three years, the preserved body would be exhumed, decorated with paint and adorned with gold.

buddha mummy

Buddhist mummy at Nangakuji temple

Many Japanese shrines exhibit the bodies of “self-mummified” monks. Victor H. Mair claims that the self-mummification of a Tibetan monk, who died ca. 1475 and whose body was retrieved relatively incorrupt in the 1990s, was achieved by the sophisticated practices of meditation, coupled with prolonged starvation and slow self-suffocation using a special belt that connected the neck with his knees in a lotus position.

This sounds like just the sort of madness drummers love, plus, most drummers I know have a little buddha belly, so I’m making a Buddhist self-mummified monk the drummer of the Mummification Metal band.

Other Rad Mummy Facts

Now, we all probably know that tomb robbers stole most of the riches from the tombs in Egypt, but what you probably didn’t know was that tomb robbers weren’t. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thousands of mummies were ground into powder and sold in Europe … as medicine. “Extract of Mummy” could heal (apparently) cuts and bruises and broken bones. During the nineteenth century, Canadian paper manufacturers imported mummies to use their linen bandages to make fine paper. The bodies were ground into artist’s pigment ominiously labelled “mummy brown”. I swear I am not making this up.


"Examination of a Mummy - the Priestess of Ammon" by Paul Dominique Phillppoteaux. c1875

It was around this time Mummy Unwrapping parties became popular – stately gentlemen would invite all their friends over to unwrap a mummy – amulets found inside the wrappings would be given as trinkets to the guests, and the unwrapped mummy would thereafter be displayed in the gentleman’s study.

OK, so I’ve written over 2000 words on mummies, so I’m going to stop now, before I just start waving my old university papers around screaming, “Read it! Read it!” I am such a mummy nerd.

Everyone? Favorite mummies? What do you think “Mummification Metal” as a sub-genre would sound like?

Yours till the tomb crumbles

6 Comments on “Metal History: Mummification

Alechia Divish
November 7, 2010 at 10:24 pm

I really enjoyed reading this. You are a very entertaining writer and I just wanted to let you know. The reason I came across your page is because someone told me grave robbers would steal the mummies head and toes. Is this true? If so, why would they do that?

November 15, 2010 at 1:01 am

@Alechia – thanks miss! I’m not sure about the toes, but I know during the “extract of mummy” phase, the heads were particularly prized. But generally, a grave robber wouldn’t be so interested in the head / toes, because they would be after the treasures – they would open up the mummies to get at the amulets wrapped inside the badges. The heads are always covered in gold funeral masks, and the toes in toe rings, so that might be where that came from?

July 3, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Thanks! I enjoy writing these, and it’s cool that people don’t find them boring, cuz I have many, many more to write :)

July 3, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Been meaning for a while to thank you for all the considerable work that goes into your Metal History pieces. Fascinating stuff.

July 2, 2010 at 1:11 am

I don’t know why. Bloody spoilsports.

When I was younger and mad obsessed with ancient egypt I wanted to be mummified when I died. I’m still kind of keen on the idea, but I have a feeling my husband would rather just burn me on a pyre and save all that money for his drumkit :)

July 1, 2010 at 10:05 pm

I’ve been wanting to obtain a cat or something for some time to test out the Egyptian methods on. When my cat died I was all for it but no one else in the house seemed to like the notion…

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