The latest cinematic iteration of The Mummy takes off when antiquities thief Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) unearths an ancient Egyptian tomb — in Iraq. Ignoring the portents of impending doom (and the fact that stealing antiquities is illegal and also wrong), Morton and his Army buddies unearth a sarcophagus. Inside lies the mummy Ahmanet, an undead pharaoh’s daughter who was mummified alive and is royally pissed off about it. She comes back to life, psychically imprints on Morton, and wreaks havoc on London.
Unlike werewolves or vampires, mummies are creature-feature mainstays that actually do have real-world counterparts. That’s why archaeologist David Hurst Thomas, co-curator of the Mummies exhibit on display at the American Museum of Natural History, has been getting a lot of movie-inspired questions lately. “It really opens the door to talk about this stuff,” Thomas says.
The number one question he’s getting isn’t about whether a mummy could remain undead and entombed for millennia, or even whether any ancient Egyptian tombs have been found in modern-day Iraq. “The question is — as if authenticity is going to be an issue in a Tom Cruise movie — ‘How realistic is that, to have a female mummy?’” Thomas says. “None of the classic mummy movies are about women.” The truth is, that’s one of the more realistic parts of the movie. More than half the mummies in Thomas’ Mummies exhibit are female. In ancient Egypt, mummification wasn’t limited to men. (Lead roles in Hollywood blockbusters are an entirely different story.)
But were ancient Egyptian princesses ever mummified alive? “I don’t know of any case like that,” Thomas says. Still, he adds, there are a lot of ways to mummify a body — and that body doesn’t always have to be dead when the process starts. “Mummies are known from every continent of the world except Antarctica,” he says. “And they have really very different roles in different belief systems.” So we rounded up a few highlights:
Mummification in ancient Egypt started by accident. The heat and dry climate sucked the moisture out of corpses, making them much less appealing to the microbes that typically drive decay. It’s why beef jerky doesn’t spoil as quickly as a juicy steak.
Around 3000 BCE, the ancient Egyptians became much more intentional about preserving their dead — kicking off the early days of mummification. By 1550 BCE, anyone who could pay for a better body in the afterlife shelled out to become a mummy after they died.
The embalming process went something like this: first, embalmers removed the deceased’s brain with a hooked instrument inserted through the nose. They also removed the internal organs — except the heart — through a small incision in the body’s left side. These were preserved separately and stored in ornate jars. Then, the body was washed with water and probably wine, and packed inside and out with a kind of salt called natron. The salt sucked the water out of the body for about 40 days, leaving the skin shriveled like a raisin. Oils were rubbed on the body to revitalize it before it was covered with a kind of tree sap, wrapped in linen and magical amulets, and buried.
“In Egypt, it’s all about looking good for the afterlife,” Thomas says. “And from the top to the bottom of Egyptian society, that becomes the goal.”
South American mummies
Thousands of years before the ancient Egyptians were wrapping corpses in linen, people in South America were mummifying their dead in an altogether different way. Between 7020 BCE and 1110 BCE, fishing communities collectively known as the Chinchorro people lived and died along the coast from southern Peru to northern Chile.
The Chinchorro people had a couple of different ways to preserve a cadaver — possibly as part of a belief system that used mummification to stay connected with the dead. But the Black Mummies — which get their name from the black manganese paint that covered the cadaver — were the standouts, physical anthropologist Bernardo T. Arriaza wrote.
The person preparing a Black Mummy first had to dismember and decapitate the body, and remove its internal organs. The skin, which was preserved separately, “was peeled away from the body and reattached later, like taking off and putting on a sock,” Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato wrote for National Geographic. To dry out the torso, the mortician stuffed the abdomen with hot ashes or coals.
Once the abdomen was dry and the bones were clean, the whole body had to be put back together again, as if it were lying down on its back. Cords tied the bones together, and sticks threaded up through the hips and rib cage, before passing into the skull like body-length splints. The hollow insides were stuffed with grass, ashes, dirt, and animal hair. Then the body was coated with ash, and the skin was carefully stretched back over the top. The last step was to paint the body with a black paste made out of the mineral manganese, which also gave shape to the deceased’s facial features.
Another question Thomas gets from museumgoers is: can you mummify yourself? “And the answer is, you sure can!” he says. Monks in especially ascetic sects of buddhism attempted self-mummification for different ideological reasons, but the end goal was to die of starvation and remain preserved for eternity.
There weren’t many who managed it. There are different numbers floating around, but according to researcher Kiyohiko Sakurai writing in a 1998 textbook, only 15 self-mummified bodies still remain in Japan. The earliest dates to the 14th century, and the latest to the turn of the 20th. The reason there are so few is probably in part because Japan’s humid climate was much less conducive to mummification than the dry and salty deserts of Egypt, or the west coast of South America.
The process was also, no surprise, unpleasant, and deadly. “It starts out with this really nasty 1,000-day diet where you’re just basically starving yourself and getting rid all of the fat in your body,” Thomas explains. The trick to self-mummification was to go low-carb. Monks cut rice, barley, corn, millet, and beans from their diet, and substituted pine bark, grass roots, and nuts for three years or more. The starvation diet altered the body’s composition “to one that was strongly resistant to decomposition,” Sakurai wrote.
When he was close to death, the monk would enter an underground tomb to be buried alive. Three years later, other monks would exhume the body and dry it over candle flames. If the mummification was successful, the mummy was re-dressed in monk’s robes, and arranged in a seated position to be worshipped.
As the ancient Egyptians learned, mummies can be made by accident, too. “The whole thing is just to somehow interrupt the natural biological process of decay, which means stopping bacteria,” Thomas says. That can happen in extremely arid, frozen, or soggy places.
Desert mummies span the globe, from caves in Nevada to ancient Egypt to the Taklamakan desert in China. Famous ice mummies include Otzi the iceman, the freeze-dried mummy of a Copper Age man who was murdered in the Alps and frozen in a glacier 5,300 years ago. There’s also the Llullaillaco Maiden, a 13-year-old girl who died of exposure as an Incan child sacrifice on an icy peak in the Andes.
Drying and freezing make some intuitive sense as preservation techniques — after all, it’s how we preserve our food. But it’s also possible to preserve a body in water, like the bog bodies discovered in Northern Europe. The low-oxygen, swampy, acidic environs of certain bogs essentially pickle the bodies — sometimes dissolving the bones, but leaving the skin and hair intact.
“So there are mummy stories all over the world,” Thomas says. Still, “It's the Egyptian ones that really rule the stage.” Here’s hoping that the next Mummy movie casts a bog body for the starring role — and yes, women could become bog bodies, too.