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How to mummify a body, according to the oldest Egyptian textbook discovered to date

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An Egyptologist recently deciphered a guide explaining step by step the process of embalming a body, allowing it to be mummified for its passage to the afterlife. It is the oldest text of this kind discovered to date.

In ancient Egypt, the preservation of the body was a very important symbol allowing access to immortality. We then proceeded to mummification, a funeral ritual aimed at “to purify and make the body divine so that it becomes an Osiris ”. In the true sense of the word, mummifying therefore consisted of keeping a corpse, then placing the body in a sarcophagus. But how did you do it, exactly?

A new guide

These skills were only practiced by a small number of highly skilled individuals who imparted their knowledge orally. So far, only two ancient Egyptian texts detailing the mummification process had been identified.

As part of her thesis, Sofie Schiødt, from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), isolated a third by reanalyzing the Louvre-Carlsberg Papyrus. It is a six-meter-long papyrus dating from around 1450 BCE currently in the Louvre Museum.

While much of the text is still missing, this papyrus primarily details ancient knowledge of herbal medicine and skin swelling, but not just that. A small section is indeed devoted to the embalming process. This “guide to mummification” is oldest discovered to date.

A section of the papyrus. Credit: University of Copenhagen

How to mummify a body?

According to this text, which reads more like a “reminder”, the whole process of mummification took about seventy days. We also learn that the embalmers were actively working on the mummy every four days. “Between these intervals, the body was covered with cloth and straw infused with aromatics to ward off insects and scavengers.“, Explain the researcher.

Regarding the steps, the embalmers first of all carry out a purification of the body. During this process, the main organs, eyes and brain of the deceased were removed. We then started the thirty-five day drying period during which the inside and outside of the body were treated with dry natron. It is a salty material collected from the beds of dry lakes.

A second period of thirty-five days was then devoted to body wrap in bandages and aromatic substances. After this stage of the mummification process was completed, the mummy was placed in its coffin, after which ritual activities were carried out for several days. The goal was then to accompany the passage of the deceased in the afterlife.

Finally, “one of the exciting new information the text provides us with concerns the procedure of embalming the face of the deceased“, Adds Sofie Schiødt. The papyrus indeed details a list of ingredients allowing the preparation of a remedy. This consisted largely of vegetable aromatic substances and binders cooked in a liquid with which embalmers coat a piece of red linen. “This cloth was then applied to the face of the deceased in order to lock him in a protective cocoon of scented and antibacterial material“, Emphasizes the Egyptologist. This process was repeated at four day intervals.



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