Friday, January 06, 2006

The Craft of Mummification

Last night Jae and I watched a program on Nova about a mummy found in Niagara Falls that turns out to be the pharaoh Rameses I ("The Mummy Who Would Be King"). What does this have to do with Greenjeans? Well, what struck me was how the process of making a mummy sounded to me like an act of great craftsmanship and artistry. I’d never thought of mummies like that before, but I thought I’d write about it today.

What drew my attention to what I’ll call the craft of mummification was when the program showed a group of experts trying to determine whether or not this was indeed a royal mummy by examining the ways in which the mummy was made, that is, the craftsmanship. In ancient Egypt, a person of high station and wealth would have a much more elaborate and carefully prepared mummy than a poor person. So for example, in the Niagara Falls mummy, after the brain was removed through the nose, the skull cavity was filled with liquid resin, a detail not normally found with common mummies. The organs (except the heart) were carefully removed as usual, but then were replaced by tightly wound pieces of linen. (The organs themselves were wrapped in linen and placed into individually decorated canopic jars.) The skin of this mummy appeared particularly intact and smooth, as though special care had been given to its preparation. And there was something about the way this mummy’s arms were crossed at his heart rather than at the pelvis that indicated royalty. Without these details, there would be no way to know whether or not this mummy had once been a pharaoh.

Later, I went online to look at the show’s website. There I found an audio slideshow called “Making Mummies” where I learned more about the craft of mummification. For instance, after the body had been emptied of all its organs, it would be washed in water and palm wine. Then to dry the body, they would use a substance called “natrun” which was harvested from a nearby salt flat. Natrun is basically salt and baking soda, and it worked by both drawing moisture out of the body while disinfecting and deodorizing. Little sacks of natrun would be distributed throughout body, and then they body would be buried and covered in natrun for 40 days.

Once fully dried, the body would be removed from the natrun and, to help reconstitute it, filled and rubbed with oils. Once this was done, the wrapping ritual would begin, accompanied by incantations and the burning of incense. Amulets to protect the soul on its journey to the next world would be wrapped in with the linen as well. And then the body would be wrapped in a shroud, which might be decorated or not depending on the person’s wealth. A sort of papier-mâché mask could be added, and then the outer sarcophagus which might be painted and even gilded.

I also thought it was interesting that the head priest in charge of making the mummy would wear a mask representing the jackal-god Anubis as he worked, suggesting that the work of mummy-making required divine intervention to be a success (perhaps like craft needs inspiration to really sing?).

I have no plans to bring finely crafted mummies to Greenjeans. Nor am I looking for a class on mummification so I can buy an Anubis mask and learn to make mummies at home. But I like to think about how humans have long been dedicated to honing their skills and taking on involved processes that result in well-made works of art.

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