A British TV show is currently searching for a terminally ill patient to embalm.
“It may sound rather macabre but we have mummified a large number of pigs to check that the process worked and it does,” a producer told a volunteer interviewing for the show, who was actually a reporter in disguise. “Afterward one thought was—though this is not obligatory—to put the body in an exhibition in a proper museum so people can properly understand the mummification process. That is something we would be flexible about.”
An unnamed English scientist has unlocked the secrets of mummification, producers say, and the on-air demonstration will be a trial run of this researcher’s theory. The Brit has reason to keep his methods secret. A world-renown anatomist with the Swiss Mummy Project—he previously proved that King Tut did not actually die of a blow to the head and that a 5,000 year old glacial mummy from the Alps named Otzi indeed died of blood loss from an arrow wound—is working on the mummy riddle too.
The Swiss’s work mimics a famous mummy study from the mid-1990s conducted by a Maryland M.D. and an Egyptologist from Long Island. The pair claimed to have successfully mummified an entire human body using only the tools available to the ancient Egyptians. While their exact solutions were a closely guarded secret it is widely believed the main ingredient was about 600 pounds of a naturally occurring salt called natron. Most second graders know what a mummy is and that the Egyptians made them, but exactly how they did it, surprisingly, still nobody knows for sure.
The earliest Egyptians covered the dead with animal skins or linen and buried them in egg-shaped pots in pits dug at the edge of agricultural fields. The dry desert sand helped preserve skeletons and keep skin on the bone. Later Egyptians attempted to recreate this dehydration process, and mummification was born.
Only the holiest of priests performed the act, often shrouded in the mask of Anubis, the jackal headed god of embalming. They did their work in a purification palace with a suite of tools that included incision knives, tweezers, hooks and an embalming table made of soft wood with legs carved like lion heads.
Organs were placed in stone containers with lids shaped like human heads. These were called canopic jars and they were intended to hold kidneys, liver, stomach, and lungs. Hearts were also kept but brains were usually discarded, as they were deemed unimportant in the afterlife. Beeswax was used to seal eyes and orifices and body cavities were flushed and filled with oils and of course, natron; salt which came from the shores of a string of oasis’ in Lower Egypt as well as from an ancient lake bed, the Wadi Natrun.
The 5th Century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus spent much time with the Egyptians and wrote in detail about mummification:
“The most perfect process is as follows: as much as possible of the brain is removed via the nostrils with an iron hook, and what cannot be reached with the hook is washed out with drugs; next, the flank is opened with a flint knife and the whole contents of the abdomen removed; the cavity is then thoroughly cleaned and washed out, firstly with palm wine and again with an infusion of ground spices. After that, it is filled with pure myrrh, cassia, and every other aromatic substance, excepting frankincense, and sewn up again, after which the body is placed in natron, covered entirely over, for seventy days – never longer. When this period is over, the body is washed and then wrapped from head to foot in linen cut into strips and smeared on the underside with gum, which is commonly used by the Egyptians instead of glue. In this condition the body is given back to the family, who have a wooden case made, shaped like a human figure, into which it is put.”
The above method was labor intensive and reserved for the wealthy. A middle of the road method involved removing the viscera via an anal enema and treating the body with natron and oils. The cheapest treatment simply flushed the intestines and dried the body with natron. Interestingly, only this option kept the brain intact.