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A Day In The Life Of An Egyptian Embalmer

Updated December 18, 2020 19.7k views12 items

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. 

  • Water, Oil, And Salt Were At The Core Of Any Good Embalming

    The process changed over time, but cleaning, drying, and purifying the body were fundamental to the procedure. Water was used to wash the body and was mixed with natron to eat away the flesh. The process was potentially harmful to the embalmers, as well - natron could be hard on the skin, eyes, and lungs. 

    Natron, a naturally occurring mineral salt made of sodium carbonate, was used to dehydrate the body. Once all the organs were removed from the torso, it was covered with natron and set aside for roughly 40 days. They were placed on tilted tables, so fluid would drain into awaiting containers. Evidence indicates workers used sodium chloride, or common salt, as well. During the earliest days of mummification, bodies were also covered in sand to dry naturally.

    According to Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century BCE, "When [embalmers] gathered for the treatment... one of them reaches with his hand through the incision into the thoracic cavity and removes everything but the kidneys and the heart. Another cleans every single piece of viscera by rinsing it with palm wine and fragrant water." Afterward, "The whole body is carefully anointed, first with cedar oil and the like."

    No one knows how much of these items embalmers used; however, thanks to the find at Saqqara, archaeologists now "have oils and measuring cups - all of them are labeled... from this we can find the chemical composition of the oils and discover what they are."

  • Photo: British Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Fragrances Were Essential To The Process For Several Reasons

    The inclusion of frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, and other scented woods and fragrant oils in the embalming process was meant to please the gods. That said, the fragrances must have made the process much more tolerable for the people preparing the bodies, too. 

    Because anointing the body with oil and perfume was so important to giving it the "odour of a god," it took place at several points during the process. Once the brain was removed, workers poured a mixture of wax, scented oil, and resin into the skull to preserve its shape. The so-called "Ritual of Embalming" involved massaging the body with juniper oil, beeswax, wine, spices, and milk before the abdominal incision was closed. It was also covered in oil from shoulders to feet during the Opening of the Mouth ceremony when the mouth was reopened so the individual could eat in the afterlife.

  • Packing The Body Required Attention To Detail

    Embalmers had to ensure bodies resembled their pre-dehydrated forms so they would be recognized in the afterlife. Once it was sufficiently dried out, the natron was removed, and it was cleaned again. In some instances, workers would collect detached fingernails, toenails, and hair that had fallen off while the body drained. Then they stuffed body cavities with sawdust, linen, and even sand, creating a lifelike form. They also included scented oils and resins.

    It wasn't uncommon for the embalmers to overstuff the head and body. Queen Henuttawy was overstuffed so much that her cheeks burst. Her body was also out of proportion when it was found, although she has since been restored to a more realistic figure.

    There were other concerns regarding the materials put in the body. Instructions cautioned workers to "beware lest he be turned upside down onto his abdomen or his face, for his body is filled with medicinal materials, and the gods which are within his abdomen might be displaced from their position." It was just as important to take care that nothing fell out, too.  

  • Photo: Biblioteca Museu Víctor Balaguer / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Wrapping Was Done Carefully, But Could Be Outsourced To The Family

    The most expensive form of embalming involved wrapping. According to Herodotus, once the body had been dried for 70 days, the workers washed it and wrapped it in linen strips. The second- and third-tier bodies, however, were wrapped by their families after being dried out by the professionals. 

    Linen was the most commonly used material for wrapping. Royalty may have been covered in high-quality textiles, but those who were sent home were probably wrapped in whole garments or leftover household items. The head and limbs were usually wrapped first, done in layers to preserve the shape of the body. 

    Mummies were also wrapped with amulets in preparation for passage to the underworld. The amulets were carved with sacred symbols and were associated with specific gods - usually Osiris. Royal mummies were often adorned with jewels and precious metals. Once a body was fully wrapped, it was dipped in resin. Paint, masks, and inscriptions could also be added.