Mummified cat from Ancient Egypt. Musée du Louvre, Paris
A mummy is a preserved corpse. The best-known mummies are those that have been embalmed with the specific purpose of preservation, particularly in ancient Egypt. In China, preserved corpses have been recovered from submerged cedar coffins packed with medicinal herbs. Mummies are also known to have formed naturally due to environmental conditions, such as extreme cold (Ötzi the Iceman), acid (Tollund Man) or desiccating dryness.
The term is thought to be derived from the Arabic word mumiyah, meaning bitumen; bitumen was once thought to be used extensively in ancient Egyptian embalming procedures due to the blackened skin of unwrapped mummies, though this is now in doubt. Another possible source for the name is the Egyptian Coptic word mum, for wax; unlike bitumen, beeswax really was extensively used in Egyptian embalming.
The history of mummies
In Egypt, the dead were originally not mummified with the extensive process that happened during the first dynasty. The dead were originally buried in reed caskets in the sand. The searing hot sand caused the remains to dry quickly, preventing decomposition. After a while, though, they started constructing wooden tombs, and the extensive process of mummification was made so that the bodies would not decompose in the afterlife.
The earliest 'mummified' individual dates back to approximately 3300 BC, although it is not a 'true' mummy. The body is on display in the British Museum and has been given the nickname of 'Ginger' because he has red hair. Ginger was buried in the hot desert sand with maybe some stones piled on top to prevent the corpse being eaten by jackals. The hot, dry conditions desiccated the body, preventing the muscle and soft tissues from decaying. Ginger was buried with some pottery vessels, which would have held food and drink to sustain him on his long journey to the other world. There are no written records of the religion or gods from that time, and it is not known if it was the intention of the ancient Egyptians that the deceased were being preserved. By the time of the First dynasty, the ancient Egyptians were definitely aware of what they were trying to achieve.
For the duration of the Middle Kingdom, from 2055 B.C. to 1650 B.C., embalmers continued to preserve the deceased. Throughout the Middle Kingdom, embalmers added steps to the mummification process. At this point in time, the Egyptians removed the brain by using hooks. First, embalmers made an opening in the skull with the hook. After the hole was created, embalmers stuck the hook up the nose to pull the brain out (Putnam 15). All throughout the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptians used natron to dry out the body. Along with natron, the Egyptians started to use resin, a sap found in Egypt, to dehydrate the body (David and Archbold 70).
The Egyptians also expanded the practice of mummification to animals. Sacred animals central to cults, such as ibis, hawks, and cats, were mummified by the thousands.
Preservation techniques were also used by other cultures around the world, such as the Scythians, Incas and other original inhabitants of Peru, and the Pazyryks. Mummified bog bodies have recently been found at Cladh Hallan, Scotland. Inadvertent mummification on a wide scale has occurred in various dry climates, including Guanajuato, Mexico.
Mummies in the modern world
Mummies have been an object of intense interest in the West since archaeologists began finding them in large numbers. 19th century aristocrats would often entertain themselves by buying mummies, having them unwrapped, and holding observation sessions. Mummies were also believed to have medicinal properties, and were sold as pharmaceuticals in powdered form. However, they were not used as fuel for steam locomotives, and the idea that they were came from a joke by Mark Twain. During the First World War, mummy wrapping linens were manufactured into paper.
During the 20th century, horror films and other mass media popularized the notion of a curse associated with mummies. This more or less facetious belief probably stems in part from the supposed curse on the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Science has also taken notice of mummies. Dr. Bob Brier, an Egyptologist, has been the first modern scientist to successfully recreate a mummy using the Egyptian method. Mummies have been used in medicine, to calibrate CAT scan machines at levels of radiation that would be too dangerous for use on living people. They have been very useful to biologists and anthropologists, as they have provided a wealth of information about the health and life expectancy of ancient peoples. In particular, mummies have demonstrated that even 5,000 years ago, humans were anatomically indistinguishable from their present-day counterparts. This has had important repercussions for the study of human evolution.
Egyptian mummies were much sought-after by museums worldwide in the 19th and early 20th centuries and many exhibit mummies today. Notably fine examples are exhibited at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, at the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin, and at the British Museum in London. The Egyptian city of Luxor is also home to a specialised Mummification Museum.
An ancient mummy dubbed the "handsome Yingpan man" was found in China's remote northwest province of Xinjiang. Archaeologists from the Xinjiang Archeological Institute found the mummified body when they opened a coffin in a graveyard dating back 1,900 years, according to Xinhua news agency . The mummy had thick brown hair, a shrunken face and body, and gray and brown skin. Its beard, eyebrows and eyelashes were clearly discernible and its clothes were intact and retained their bright color.
The mummified man, believed to have lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), was 1.8 meters (nearly six feet) tall and might have died at about 25 years of age. His coffin which had colorful paintings on the outside was discovered together with over 150 ancient tombs dating back to the Eastern Han Dynasty at Yingpan near Lop Nur in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. This coffin along with five others had been shipped to Urumqi, the regional capital, and were kept in the institute, unopened, for three years. The mummy is believed to be significant for the study of economic and cultural exchanges between China and Western countries in ancient times.
The "handsome Yingpan man" is thought to be comparable to the "beautiful Loulan woman," a 3,800-year-old female mummy discovered in 1980 at the Tiebanhe Delta, about 200 kilometers east of Yingpan, said the report. Loulan was an ancient kingdom along China's Silk Road in Xinjiang.
Mummy is also a colloquial name for a mother.
- Cat Mummies (http://www.akhet.co.uk/cat.htm)