2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Archaeology

Mummy (sˁḥ)
in hieroglyphs

H A53

A mummy is a corpse whose skin and dried flesh have been preserved by either intentional or accidental exposure to chemicals, extreme cold or dryness, or airlessness.

Types of mummies

Intentionally prepared "ritualistic" mummies

The best-known mummies are those that have been deliberately embalmed with the specific purpose of preservation, particularly those in ancient Egypt. Egyptian culture believed the body was home to a person's Ka which was essential in one's afterlife. In Egypt, the abdomens were opened and many organs were removed. The emptied body was then covered in natron, to speed up the process of dehydration, and to prevent decomposition.They are covered with sheets of white linen then wrapped with canvas.

In China, preserved corpses have been recovered from submerged cypress coffins packed with medicinal herbs.

Naturally preserved mummies

Mummies formed as a result of naturally occurring environmental conditions, such as extreme cold ( Ötzi the Iceman), acid ( Tollund Man) or desiccating dryness have been found all over the world. Some of the best-preserved mummies formed under natural conditions date from the Inca period in Peru.


The English word mummy is derived from mediaeval Latin mumia, a borrowing of the Arabic word mūmiyyah (مومية), which means " bitumen". (Because of the blackened skin of unwrapped mummies, bitumen was once thought to be used extensively in ancient Egyptian embalming procedures. Asphalt and tar are forms of bitumen.) The Arabic word was itself borrowed from the Persian word mūmiya, meaning "bitumen"; this is related to another Persian word, mūm, which means "wax". (The ancient Greek historians record that the Persians sometimes mummified their kings and nobility in wax, though this practice has never been documented in Egypt.)

Mummies in ancient Egypt

The earliest known 'mummified' individual dates back to approximately 3300 BC, although it is not an internationally renowned mummy, such as, Rameses II or Seti I. This virtually unknown mummy 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, possibly with stones piled on top to prevent the corpse being eaten by jackals. The hot, dry conditions desiccated and preserved the body. Ginger was buried with some pottery vessels, which would have held food and drink to sustain him on his journey to the other world. There are no written records of the religion from that time, but it likely resembled the later religion to some extent. The desert conditions were a fact of life "and death", so, in any case, some physical preservation would be natural.


Although mummification existed in other cultures, eternal life was the main focus of all Ancient Egyptians, which meant preserving the body forever. The earliest attempts were recorded in 3000 B.C. The technique used during this period was minimal and not yet mastered. As time progressed, the organs were eventually removed and stored in canopic jars, allowing the body to preserve better. It wasn’t until the Middle Kingdom that embalmers used natural salts to remove moisture from the body. This dried it out and preserved more flesh than bone. Once dried, mummies were anointed with oils and perfumes, which was part of their ritual. The 21st Dynasty brought forth its most advanced skills in embalming and the mummification process reached its peak. After going though the process, the mummies were laid to rest inside a tomb. There the mummy would rest forever, or so it was thought.

Mummies in other civilizations

A mummified body displayed in the British Museum.
A mummified body displayed in the British Museum.

A number of other civilizations are known to have practiced the art of mummification.

  • Aztec
  • Incas, (See Mummy Juanita). A practice also adopted by peoples they conquered, e.g. Chachapoyas.
  • Japan, see external link Buddhist mummies in Japan, PubMed.
  • Tibetans, who reserved this honour for people who reached a highest level of enlightenment.
  • Catholicism; for many centuries, deceased popes were mummified, though this has not been the case in recent papacies.

Chinese mummies

Chinese mummies of an Indo-European type have been found in the Tarim Basin dating to as early as 1600 BC and suggesting very ancient contacts between the east and the west. It has been suggested that these mummified remains may have been the work of the ancestors of the Tocharians whose Indo-European language remained in use in the Tarim Basin (Modern day Xinjiang in China) until the 8th century AD (see Silk Road: Tocharians).

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 colour.

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, about 200 kilometers east of Yingpan.

The three best-preserved mummies in the world are found in China. These mummies were debut on the US National Geographic Channel, September 6, 2004, as part of the kick-off of the National Geographic Channel's "Most Amazing Discoveries" series.

Natural mummies

Natural mummification is fairly rare, requiring specific conditions to occur, but it has produced some of the oldest known mummies. The most famous ancient mummy is Ötzi the Iceman, frozen in a glacier in the Ötztal Alps around 3300 BC and found in 1991. An even older but less well preserved mummy was found in Spirit Cave, Nevada in 1940 and carbon-dated to around 7400 BC.

The United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark have all produced a number of bog bodies, mummies of people deposited in sphagnum bogs apparently as a result of murder or ritual sacrifices. In such cases, the acidity of the water, the cold temperature and the lack of oxygen combine to tan the body's skin and soft tissues. The skeleton typically disintegrates over time. Such mummies are remarkably well preserved, with skin and internal organs surviving ; it is even possible to determine what their last meal was by examining their stomach contents.

In 1972, eight remarkably preserved mummies were discovered at an abandoned Inuit settlement called Qilakitsoq, in Greenland. The "Greenland Mummies" consisted of a six-month old baby, a four year old boy, and six women of various ages, who died around 500 years ago. Their bodies were naturally mummified by the sub-zero temperatures and dry winds in the cave in which they were found.

Some of the best-preserved mummies date from the Inca period in Peru some 500 years ago, where children were ritually sacrificed and placed on the summits of mountains in the Andes. The cold, dry climate had the effect of desiccating the corpses and preserving them intact.

In the state of Guanajuato, Mexico mummies were discovered in a cemetery of a city named Guanajuato northwest of Mexico City (near Léon). They are accidental modern mummies and were literally "dug up" between the years 1896 and 1958 when a local law required relatives to pay a kind of grave tax. The Guanajuato mummies are on display in the Museo de las momias high on a hill overlooking the city.

Mummies in recent times

The "auto-icon" of Jeremy Bentham at University College London
The "auto-icon" of Jeremy Bentham at University College London

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. On occasion a tea would be made from the wrappings. These sessions destroyed hundreds of mummies, because the exposure to the air caused them to disintegrate.

In the 1830s Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, left instructions to be followed upon his death which led to the creation of a sort of modern-day mummy. He asked that his body be displayed to illustrate how the "horror at dissection originates in ignorance"; once so displayed and lectured about, he asked that his body parts be preserved, including his skeleton (minus his skull, for which he had other plans), which was to be dressed in the clothes he usually wore and "seated in a Chair usually occupied by me when living in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought." His body, outfitted with a wax head created because of problems preparing his head as Bentham requested, is on display in the University College London.

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. The mummified remains of what turned out to be Ramesses I ended up in a "Daredevil Museum" near Niagara Falls on the United StatesCanada border; records indicate that it had been sold to a Canadian in 1860 and exhibited alongside displays such as a two-headed calf for nearly 140 years, until a museum in Atlanta, Georgia, which had acquired the mummy along with other artifacts, determined it to be royal and returned it to Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. It is currently on display in the Luxor Museum.

Mummy in the British Museum
Mummy in the British Museum

Mummies were also believed to have medicinal properties, and were sold as pharmaceuticals in powdered form. As seen to the left, Emad Mousa, Ancient Mummy of the Obstetrical gods was very popular in historic Egyptian culture. An urban myth of mummies being used as fuel for steam locomotives, was popularized by Mark Twain, but whether it was true or not remains a debate. Encyclopedia Brittanica 1771 Edition claims that this was a real practice on the railway that ran from Cairo to Khartoum, an area with few trees but lots of mummies. During the First World War, mummy wrapping linens were manufactured into paper.

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. In fact, mummies can be studied without unwrapping them using CAT scan and X-ray machines to form a picture of what's inside.

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.

Scientists interested in cloning DNA of mummies have recently reported findings of clonable DNA in an Egyptian mummy dating to circa 400 BC. Although analyzing the hair of Ancient Egyptian mummies from the Late Middle Kingdom has revealed evidence of a stable diet , Ancient Egyptian mummies from circa 3200 BC show signs of severe anaemia and hemolitic disorders .

Artists also made use of mummies during the late 1800's, in the form of paint. The brownish paint was called "Caput Mortum", latin for "Dead Head", made from the wrappings of mummies.

In March 2006, the body of the Greek Orthodox Monk Vissarion Korkoliacos was found intact in his tomb, after fifteen years in grave. The event had as a result a dispute between those who spoke about a miracle and those who claimed the possibility of natural mummification. However, the scientific research did not come to an end until today and as a result of this any opinion on the matter could not be characterized as definitive.

Modern Mummies

A cat being mummified by Summum
A cat being mummified by Summum


In 1975, an esoteric organization by the name of Summum introduced "Modern Mummification," a form of mummification that Summum claims uses modern techniques along with aspects of ancient methods. The service is available for spiritual reasons. Summum considers animals and people to have an essence that continues following the death of the body, and their mummification process is meant to preserve the body as a means to aid the essence as it transitions to a new destination. Summum calls this "Transference," and the concept seems to correlate with ancient Egyptian reasons for mummification.

Rather than using a dehydration process that is typical of ancient mummies, Summum uses a chemical process that is supposed to maintain the body's natural look. The process includes leaving the body submerged in a tank of preservation fluid for several months. Summum claims its process preserves the body so well that the DNA will remain intact far into the future leaving open the possibility for cloning should science perfect the technique on humans.

According to news stories, Summum has mummified numerous pets such as birds, cats, and dogs. People were mummified early on when Summum developed its process and many have made personal, "pre-need" arrangements. Summum has been included in television programs from National Geographic and the British Broadcasting Corporation, and is also discussed in the book, The Scientific Study of Mummies, by Arthur C. Aufderheide.


Plastination is a technique used in anatomy to conserve bodies or body parts. The water and fat are replaced by certain plastics, yielding specimens that can be touched, do not smell or decay, and even retain most microscopic properties of the original sample.

The technique was invented by Gunther von Hagens when working at the anatomical institute of the University of Heidelberg in 1978. Von Hagens has patented the technique in several countries and is heavily involved in its promotion, especially with his travelling exhibition Body Worlds showing plastinated human bodies all over the world. He also founded and directs the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg.

Mummies in fiction

During the 20th century, horror films and other mass media popularized the notion of a curse associated with mummies. Films representing such a belief include the 1932 film The Mummy starring Boris Karloff as Imhotep; four subsequent 1940's Universal Studios mummy films which featured a mummy named Kharis (pictured at right in The Mummy's Ghost), who also was the title mummy in a 1959 Hammer version; and a remake of the original film that was released in 1999. The belief in cursed mummies probably stems in part from the supposed curse on the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Mummies commonly feature in fantasy genres as a undead creature.

Mummy is Monster in My Pocket #41. He is associated with the good monsters.

Dark Magic Priest Meemy of Mahou Sentai Magiranger is based on the classic concept of reanimated mummies in horror films, Meemy's Power Rangers: Mystic Force counterpart is Imperious.

Famous mummies

Mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses II
Mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses II

From Egypt

  • Tutankhamun
  • Ramesses I
  • Nesperennub
  • Amenhotep III
  • Thutmose II
  • Seti I
  • Ramesses II
  • Nesyamun
  • Yuya


  • Ötzi the Iceman
  • Tollund Man
  • Jeremy Bentham
  • James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell
  • Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz
  • Vladimir Lenin
  • Eva Perón
  • Loung Pordaeng
  • Mao Zedong
  • Ho Chi Minh
  • Kim Il-Sung
  • Vissarion Korkoliacos
  • Qilakitsoq mummies
  • Lindow Man
  • Lindow Woman

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