This popular Museum exhibition features human and animal mummies, tomb artifacts, and objects and materials used in the mummification process. It offers an in-depth look at the ancient Egyptian beliefs in the afterlife, and the complex funerary practices they developed over thousands of years. The exhibition also looks at what modern-day scientists, through x-ray, autopsy and other techniques, have learned about ancient Egyptian culture.
In order to understand the necessity for mummification, one needs to appreciate the ancient Egyptian belief in a life after death and the Egyptian's desire to preserve the body so that it could fully take part in the afterlife.
Life After Death: the akh, ka, ba, and ren
The ancient Egyptians believed that a number of different qualities made up the being of a person and his or her personality: the akh, the ka, the ba, and the ren. These qualities continued after death and needed a place to reside.
The akh was the aspect that moved into the realm of the gods. The ka, which is sometimes thought of as "vital energy," was a person's "double" and was reunited with them after death. Offerings were left in the tomb for the ka, as it required food and drink in order to survive in the afterlife.
The ba was represented as a human-headed bird that could fly around and leave the tomb at will. Examples of ka statues and ba birds can be found in the Secrets and Science gallery.
Ren is the ancient Egyptian word for "name." It was considered very important for the name to be preserved and repeated.
How Mummification Began
The gallery is arranged in a chronological fashion enabling the visitor to view the development of the science of mummification. The earliest Egyptian mummies occurred naturally. Bodies were placed in shallow graves in the low desert. The combination of the hot sun, dry climate and the sand-filled graves caused the bodies to dry out and become preserved in a very lifelike way. At the entrance to the exhibit is a 5,500 year old mummy shown together with artifacts typically found in graves of the Predynastic period (3500 BCE). The ancient Egyptians noticed the occurrence of this natural preservation and over many centuries experimented with artificial ways of producing, and improving upon, the same effect.
How Egyptians Made Mummies
The process of artificial mummification took about 70 days. First, the internal organs (with the exception of the heart) and the brain would be removed. Then the body would be placed in a bed of natron (a salt-like substance found in Egypt) where it would remain until the salts had dried the body out. Afterwards, the body would be removed from the natron, washed and anointed with precious oils and spices.
Then the wrapping would begin. The body would be completely wrapped in linen bandages. During this process many prayers were recited and rituals took place. Amulets of gold, semi-precious stones or faience were placed on the body and covered by the bandages. These amulets were thought to provide protection for the deceased. Some of these many different kinds of amulets can be seen in this gallery.
After the body was wrapped, the head and face were often covered by a mask decorated with facial features similar to those of the deceased. Facial features were often decorated with gold or gilding to imitate the flesh of the gods, which was thought to be made of solid gold.
The mummy would then be placed in a series of coffins. Examples of natural materials and tools used during the mummification process can be found in the exhibit.
Coffins and Other Accessories for Mummies
Examples of different types of coffins can be seen in the mummy galleries, from roughly hewn undecorated wooden coffins to brightly painted, highly decorated cartonnage [layers of gummed linen or papyrus and plaster] examples. Some coffins, like that of Ahanakht, were completely covered with religious spells known as "Coffin Texts." A section of Ahanakht's wooden coffin can be seen in the same case as the brightly painted stele of Nefersefekhy. Funerary stelae were set up in or around the tomb. They recorded the name and image of the deceased (and sometimes his family) as well as an offering prayer listing his wishes for food, drink and other necessities in the afterlife.
In addition to coffins, many other important funerary objects can be found in this gallery. Canopic jars were an essential part of the funerary preparations. These jars held the internal organs of the deceased that were removed during mummification. The lids of these containers were often decorated with the heads of four protective deities.
Human headed Imsety guarded the liver; the ape-headed Hapy protected the lungs; the hawk-headed Qebehsenuef watched over the intestines and finally, the jackal-headed Duamutef guarded the stomach.
Also important for the deceased were figurines called shabtis. These small human-shaped statuettes were placed in the tomb. On the front of the shabti was a hieroglyphic inscription which, when recited, magically caused the shabti to come to life and perform work for the deceased in the afterlife.
How Egyptian Tombs Developed
The models, re-constructions and text panels in the gallery illustrate the historical development of ancient Egyptian tombs. The different parts of the tomb are shown together with artifacts found in particular chambers and areas.
For instance, in Old Kingdom tombs, statues of the tomb owner were often placed in hidden chambers in the walls. Known as serdabs, these niches were constructed with a small opening through which the statue could "look out" and partake of the offerings left in the tomb by visitors. While not a true portrait of the individual, Old Kingdom statues were vividly painted with lifelike colors.
In addition to mummifying humans, the ancient Egyptians also mummified animals. Many ancient Egyptian gods were associated with an animal; for example, the goddess Hathor could be shown in human form, as a cow-headed woman or entirely as a cow.
Pilgrims visiting temples in ancient Egypt during the Greco-Roman Period could dedicate a mummy of a sacred animal to its resident god or goddess. Archaeologists have excavated animal cemeteries in Egypt, finding thousands of cat, ibis, hawk and crocodile mummies. Not only were sacred animals mummified, but it is possible that people also mummified their beloved pets. Inside the exhibit case with the mummy of a man named Hapi-Men is a small mummy of a dog, which was found alongside him in his tomb.
Modern Science and Ancient Mummies
Modern medical techniques such as x-rays and CAT scans can be used to learn a great deal about the health of the ancient Egyptians. Scientists have been able to study their diseases, diet, nutrition and genealogy. These modern techniques are less destructive than the process of unwrapping the wrappings. This gallery contains two mummies, Hapi Men and PUM II, which have been examined by medical doctors as well as Egyptologists. From these mummies, we can gain a further understanding of ancient Egyptian medical and dental practices.
"PUM II" Mummy, Ptolemaic Period, ca. 2nd century BC
PUM II was so named because he was otherwise anonymous (the absence of his name on his coffin's lid indicates the coffin was taken "from stock," not custom-made) and he was the second mummy from the Museum's collection to be autopsied. Unwrapping the mummy for examination took some time: the mummy had originally been prepared with about 12 layers of linen wrapping of various qualities of cloth, and hot liquid resin had been poured liberally over the body at many stages of the embalming process. Once unwrapped, it could be seen that the body was in a fine state of preservation. On the basis of anatomical studies, the age of the individual was estimated to be between 35 and 40 years. At the time of unwrapping the body, its color was light brown. However, within a day of exposure to air, it had darkened appreciably. Today, the remains are almost black. "PUM II" was x-rayed prior to the autopsy and a number of bone abnormalities were detected. The most interesting of these was the swelling of the right leg which, in autopsy, was identified as an inflammation of the connective tissue around the bone structure. The cause of the inflammation is unknown, but could have been due to some chronic condition, such as varicose veins.
In Spring of 2009, PUM II was taken to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for CT scanning.
Ancient Writing on Papyrus
Finally, in the Secrets and Science exhibition, one can see examples of ancient Egyptian papyri. Papyrus was a paper-like substance that was made by the ancient Egyptians. Many different types of documents were recorded on papyrus: administrative records, tax documents, literary compositions, religious texts and medical works.
In the Secrets and Science gallery there is a papyrus written in hieratic, a cursive form of hieroglyphs, which records references to ancient tomb robberies. Some papyri were also decorated with scenes that accompanied the text. The "Book of the Dead" of Neferrenpet in the mummy room is a beautifully illustrated example. The "Book of the Dead," or as the Egyptians called it, the "Book of Going Forth. By Day in the Necropolis," was a group of religious spells that helped the deceased make his way into the afterlife. Neferrenpet was a sculptor who lived in the town of Deir el Medina, near modern Luxor, around 1260 BCE.
The Book of the Dead
Section of the Book of the Dead, for Nefer-renpet, Deir el-Medineh, ca. 1260 BC.
Shown here is a section of the Book of the Dead for Nefer-renpet, a sculptor who lived in the village of Deir el-Medineh which housed many of the artisans and craftsmen who were responsible for building and decorating the royal and private tombs of the New Kingdom. It is likely that Nefer-renpet lived some time around 1260 BC.
To ensure his success in his final journey, he had a Book of the Dead prepared, to be put into his tomb when he died. A Book of the Dead contains spells prepared in advance by an artist/scribe, who personalized them by adding the name of the owner. The section of papyrus here has Spells 94, 96, 97 and part of 130.
Spell 94, for requesting a water jar and palette in the cemetery, begins just under the front leg of the chair upon which Nefer-renpet sits.
New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1170 BC)
Several spells from the Book of the Dead were recited, written on papyrus, or carved on amulets in order to help the deceased pass successfully into the afterlife. Specific spells were inscribed on beetle-shaped amulets (carved out of greenish stone) called heart scarabs. The Egyptians placed these heart scarabs on the chest of a mummy after mummification. The heart was one internal organ left in the body during the mummification process while most of the others were removed. The most common Book of the Dead spell found on heart scarabs is 30B, but it is not uncommon for spell 29B to appear.
The ancient Egyptians believed that after a person died, he or she was subject to a final judgment. The heart would be placed on a scale opposite a feather that represented the goddess Ma'at, a symbol of truth and goodness.
If the deceased's heart was equal in weight to the feather, it indicated that he or she had not committed evil deeds during life and the deceased could enter the afterlife and live again. If the heart was heavier than the feather of Ma'at, then it was fed to a devouring demon with the head of a crocodile and the body of a lion. This person died a second and final death and could not take part in the afterlife.
Visit the Egypt: A New Look at an Ancient Culture website
This website offers an overview of the Penn Museum's excavations and takes visitors on a virtual tour through the Egyptian Galleries and Collections. Find out about hieroglyphs, gods and goddesses, and funerary practices.