Mummies in Egypt

Part of the Mummies exhibition

Mummies are inextricably linked in our imagination with ancient Egypt, and not without reason. Mummification was practiced for thousands of years in Egypt and was long considered a key step in a person’s journey to the afterlife.

Egyptian mummies were prepared using a detailed process that included removing many of the internal organs, desiccating the body in a drying salt, and wrapping the preserved body in linen before placing it in a wooden coffin, like this one. The painted coffin (#30023) below, and the mummy that was inside it, are both featured in Mummies.

Detail of the head of the coffin shows a painted face with a long slim beard, wearing a headdress, with illustrated figures decorating the body.

Coffin #30023 dates back to the late 25th Dynasty or early 26th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, (approximately 700–600 BC).

© 2015 The Field Museum, A115218d_003C, photographer John Weinstein


Grave robbing was a problem in ancient Egypt, but coffins of limestone made the grave more difficult to open or damage. While most people couldn’t afford one, wealthier Egyptians sometimes paid for the added security. The fragment below is from a limestone coffin, also called a sarcophagus, that would have held a wooden coffin and, inside that, a mummy. The full sarcophagus would have weighed several thousand pounds.

Smoothly sculpted head showing a detailed face, ears and headdress.

Fragment of a sarcophagus of Middle Ptolemaic Egypt (225–175 BC).

© 2015 The Field Museum, A115213d_017A, photographer John Weinstein


Egyptians believed that the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines needed to be preserved because the person would need all their body parts in the afterlife. The organs were placed in a small stone or wood chest divided into four compartments or into canopic jars like the ones pictured below. Each jar features a removable top carved to represent one the four Sons of Horus, deities who protected the organs inside and served the dead. The jackal-headed jar, for instance, would have held a person’s stomach that had been carefully dried and wrapped in linen.

Four stone jars, the lids of which are shaped differently—one of which takes the form of a jackal, and the others represent a baboon, hawk, and human.

Limestone canopic jars whose forms—human, baboon, hawk and jackal—represent the four Sons of Horus.

© 2015 The Field Museum, A115240d_002A, photographer John Weinstein


Archaeologists have uncovered cemeteries containing millions of animal mummies. They weren’t pets—they were raised in large quantities to be mummified, then sold as religious offerings. Most Egyptian gods were associated with animals, and many animals were buried in special tombs in honor of the gods associated with them.   The mummified gazelle below was probably raised at a temple specifically for the purpose of being mummified and used as a burial offering.

The body of this gazelle is wrapped in linens in a sitting pose, the shape of the head, neck and horns are discernible underneath the wrappings.

Ancient Egyptian mummified gazelle.

© 2015 The Field Museum, A115212d_007A, photographer John Weinstein


 

Visit Mummies Revealed to learn about the noninvasive technologies used in modern research.

Photo credit for lead image: © 2015 The Field Museum, A115218d_027A, photographer John Weinstein