Weird History

A Day In The Life Of An Egyptian Embalmer  

Melissa Sartore
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Making mummies in ancient Egypt wasn't for the faint of heart. Mummification was developed thousands of years ago but didn't become standard practice in Egypt until the Old Kingdom (c. 2600-2150 BCE). Embalmers were sacred individuals tasked with making sure the bodies of loved ones were appropriately prepared to make the journey to the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians approached mummification according to a detailed process tied up in myth, preservation techniques, and religious offerings. The body and soul were inextricably linked: For an individual to continue to the afterlife, he or she had to be identifiable in the underworld for final judgment.

How bodies were handled in ancient Egypt wasn't determined strictly by spiritual beliefs, however. Economics, social class, and politics were all critical factors, and the embalming trade depended as much on the client as anything else. Ancient Egyptian embalming involved specific materials, but embalmers didn't uniformly apply them, nor were all embalmers created equal. Here's what it was like to be an Egyptian embalmer. 

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Embalmers Provided Multi-Tiered Services

In Ancient Egypt, rulers and members of the upper classes were initially the only people who were embalmed. As it became common throughout Egyptian society, however, embalmers adjusted their practice, providing services based on the social status of the subject.

A recent archaeological find in the Saqqara necropolis in Egypt attests to this. The discovery of an embalmer's workshop with equipment and five mummies revealed "clear socioeconomic differences between the mummies in the shaft," according to Ramadan Badry Hussein, director of the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project. 

The idea that not all embalming was the same, however, is nothing new. Herodotus wrote about the three kinds of embalming as far back as the 5th century BCE. When presented with a person, embalmers showed family members options for mummification:

In this occupation, certain persons employ themselves regularly and inherit this as a craft. These, whenever a [body] is conveyed to them, show to those who brought it wooden models... made like reality by painting, and the best of the ways of embalming they say is that of him whose name I think it impiety to mention when speaking of a matter of such a kind; the second which they show is less good than this and also less expensive; and the third is the least expensive of all. Having told them about this, they inquire of them in which way they desire... their friend to be prepared. Then they after they have agreed for a certain price depart out of the way.

Simply put, embalmers showed the family members three wooden examples, the first of which is believed to have resembled Osiris, and asked which model they wanted their relative to look like when they entered the afterlife. 

Embalming Workshops Were Adjacent To Burial Chambers

Egyptian sources refer to locations where embalming took place as "the Good House." The workshop itself was known as "the Pure Place." Historians and archaeologists have long believed embalmers erected tents or temporary structures near interment sites to do their work. This was most likely done far away from residential areas to prevent the smell from affecting the general population. 

The archaeological find at the Saqqara necropolis reframes this assumption, as the workshop they uncovered was a bit more permanent than previously believed. The workshop is connected to a communal interment site where the embalmer had set up shop. 

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The Process Took About 70 Days

According to Herodotus, embalming took 70 days. He described the process after the worker had cleaned the body and removed its organs:

They keep it for embalming covered up in natron for 70 days, but for a longer time than this it is not permitted to embalm it; and when the 70 days are past, they wash the [cadaver] and roll its whole body up in fine linen cut into bands, smearing these beneath with gum, which the Egyptians use generally instead of glue.

This is somewhat misleading, however, because there were other steps required for preservation. Other sources also indicate the timeframe could be accelerated. The Mortuary Stela of Priest Psantik from the 6th century BCE describes a man who "spent 42 days under the hand of Anubis, lord of Tazoser."

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There Were Several Ways To Remove Internal Organs

The process an embalmer undertook varied based on the option chosen by an individual's family. First, the brain was removed through the nose using a hook. Next, the organs in the torso were taken out using "a sharp stone of Ethiopia." They also removed the lungs, stomach, liver, and intestines, leaving the heart because they believed that was the center of a person's soul and identity. The organs were placed into canopic jars. The cavity was cleaned with palm wine and spices and was filled with myrrh and cassia before being sewn back together.

According to Herodotus:

Those who desire the middle way and wish to avoid great cost they prepare [it] as follows: having filled their syringes with the oil which is got from cedar-wood, with this they forthwith fill the belly... and this they do without having either cut it open or taken out the bowels, but they inject the oil by the breech, and having stopped the drench from returning back they keep it then the appointed number of days for embalming, and on the last of the days they let the cedar oil come out from the belly, which they before put in; and it has such power that it brings out with it the bowels and interior organs of the body dissolved; and the natron dissolves the flesh, so that there is left... only the skin and the bones. When they have done this, they give back the [cadaver] at once in that condition without working upon it any more.

At the lower end of the embalming spectrum, "They cleanse out the belly with a purge and then keep the body for embalming during the 70 days, and at once after that, they give it back to the bringers to carry away." 

In either of the lower-tier options, the organs were given much less care, but they were still placed into canopic jars.