There is a certain fascination with the idea of mummies. The fact that they are so old, yet extremely well preserved makes them an interesting area of study for scientists. In a recent Discovery Curiosity special, this was just the topic of research. The special, titled “I Was Mummified”, chronicles the journey of a terminally ill Alan Billis who donated his body to be mummified in the name of science. Dr. Stephen Buckley, the scientist in charge of the project, had been studying the way of embalming that took place in the time of Egyptian pharaohs. First, he chemically analyzed the compounds found in and on mummies. Then using only materials that would have been available back then such as linen, beeswax, sesame oil, and salt, Buckley performed as many as 200 experiments to perfect the process. The only thing left to do was to test out his seemingly perfected method on a human.
Shortly after his death, Alan Billis’s process of becoming a modern day Pharaoh had begun. His internal organs were removed through a small incision in his abdomen. The only thing left was the heart, because the heart was thought to perform the functions that we now know the brain performs. The brain was also left undisturbed, contrary to popular belief that the brain was removed through the nose using hooks. The body cavity was filled with linen balls to preserve fullness. The incision and body were sealed using a beeswax and sesame oil mixture. Then in order to draw the moisture out of the internal tissues, Alan was placed in a natron salt bath for 35 days. This process helped to set the body fat in a new stable form. He was then placed in a heated chamber to dry out for two weeks. Finally, he was wrapped in linen and left to dry out for six more weeks.
After these six weeks, he was partially unwrapped to be observed. He appeared dark, but still resembled himself. Decomposition seemed to have been halted, his skin was hard and leathery rather than soft and slimy as would have been expected without the process of mummification. The scientists had succeeded.
This was so amazing to me. The fact that scientists could recreate the methods of the ancient Egyptian embalmers is a testament to modern day science. However, the even more incredible fact is that thousands of years ago people had this knowledge, which allowed them to preserve bodies that are still around today.
Ritual mummification was crucial to the Egyptians because it allowed the body and soul to reunite in the afterlife. Even though, today it was not so much a ritual as it was a science experiment, learning about the ritual lets us clearly see the time and care that was put into preservation of the body. This is still done today with our less intensive form of embalmment. In order to make modern day embalming a seemingly normal practice, we tend to place our reasoning for this technique in past accepted funerary practices, like mummification.