Not every child looks forward to a trip to the museum, but how many have failed to thrill at the sight of an ancient Egyptian mummy? How many adults, for that matter, can resist the fascination of this well over 5000-year-old process of preserving dead bodies in a state if not perfectly lifelike then at least eerily intact? If you’ve ever wondered exactly how mummification worked — or if you’ve simply forgotten the descriptions accompanying the displays you saw on those museum trips — this short video from the Getty Museum’s Youtube channel provides an insight into how the ancient Egyptians did it.
The video uses a real mummy as a case study, the preserved body of a twenty-year-old man named Herakleides (as we know because his mummifiers, though themselves unidentified, wrote it on his feet), who died in the first century A.D. He had most of his internal organs removed — even his heart, which common practice usually dictated leaving in, but for some reason not his lungs — and spent forty days buried in salt that drew every last bit of moisture out of him.
He then received rubbings of perfumed oils, followed by a poured-on layer of resin to which strips of linen (the mummy’s characteristically copious “bandages” of popular culture) could adhere. Wrapped onto a board, equipped with a “mysterious pouch” as well as a mummified ibis, and covered with an unusual red shroud emblazoned with symbols and a portrait of himself, Herakleides was ready for his journey into the afterlife.
“Such elaborate burial practices might suggest that the Egyptians were preoccupied with thoughts of death,” says the Smithsonian’s page on Egyptian mummies. “On the contrary, they began early to make plans for their death because of their great love of life. They could think of no life better than the present, and they wanted to be sure it would continue after death.” The ancient Egyptians believed “that the mummified body was the home for this soul or spirit. If the body was destroyed, the spirit might be lost.”
If you find yourself sharing these beliefs, do have a look at National Geographic‘s guide on how to make a mummy in 70 days or less. And just as you’d need to arrange the right ingredients to prepare a satisfying meal, something else the Egyptians enjoyed, don’t attempt any mummification at home without making sure you’re fully stocked with resin, ointments, lichen, strawdust, beeswax, palm wine, incense, and myrrh. And it goes without saying that however many feet of wrappings you’ve got, it couldn’t hurt to have more.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.