Your complete guide to mummification

The Mummy in Ancient Egypt

June 11, 1999

There is a natural fascination, however morbid, with the preservation of the dead, and it reaches what is probably its greatest expression in the wealth of literature and lore concerning Egyptian mummies. The procedures of mummification and the attendant paraphernalia have long needed a serious and systematic study with consideration of the religious and cultural background of the process and the changing aspects of the procedure through four millennia of Egyptian history. The authors of the present book have answered this challenge in an informative and authoritative work of wide scope.

A general chapter on burial includes an examination of the Egyptian conception of the afterlife, key to all that is to come. A study of the evolution of the tomb and its contents follows, with careful differentiation of royal and private examples, some familiar - from the pyramids to the tomb of Tutankhamun - but many that are less well known. In this chapter and throughout, the text is supplemented with numerous photographs and drawings. The history of the discovery and examination of mummified remains (titled, somewhat wryly, "The resurrection of the mummies") completes the introductory section of the book. It is this historical survey that may well be of greatest interest to the non-specialist but a digression on the varied uses to which mummies have been subjected is also intriguing. Mummies and their wrappings have played a variety of roles through history, including that of providing the raw material for paper making, an ingredient in potions and medicine and the basis of a painter's pigment. When it was called to Edward Burne-Jones's attention that one of his tubes of paint was actually made of ground-up mummy, he insisted that it be given a "Christian" burial in his garden.

Part two is essentially a consideration of various aspects of the process in more detail. It includes separate chapters on the physical nature of the mummies and the mechanics of mummification, on amulets and jewellery, wrappings, masks and the external decoration of the corpse, coffins, sarcophagi and the containers for the viscera removed from the body. Each of these special areas is treated chronologically, necessitating an amount of repetition of historical information. The clarity, however, that emerges by treating each special area separately illuminates the evolution of style and enterprise in the various aspects of the procedure. The alternative would have been to proceed period by period, taking up all types of physical evidence and aspects of the process at one time.

Part three is a compilation of references, time lines, a gazetteer of royal cemeteries, maps, catalogues and a very useful bibliography. To this should be added the five-page chronology of Egyptian history at the beginning of the book to suggest the extent to which the authors have provided a considerable amount of background material supplementary to the central study of mummies and mummification.

One of the most serious misconceptions concerning the mummification process is the notion that the Egyptians employed one fully developed method for all time. As with any other aspect of ancient Egyptian culture, including language and religion, the evolution of the art or craft extended throughout all of dynastic history. A previous attempt at a history of mummification was Mummies and Magic: The Funerary Arts of Ancient Egypt (1988), the catalogue of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Considerable information was covered in that publication but it was necessarily limited by the fact that the illustrative material was drawn entirely from the collections of one museum. This is certainly not the case with the book under review. The lengthy text is supported by 485 illustrations, with more photographs of whole or partly unwrapped mummies than have ever been assembled in one book. Of admittedly little concern to the general reader but somewhat annoying to the specialist is the lack of adequate identification of sources for these illustrations. There are a number of intriguing examples obviously drawn from older publications or limited editions that prompt further interest.

The authors state that the work is intended for both the layperson and the specialist. The abundance of varied information may overwhelm the former; the lack of footnotes may frustrate the latter. For the general reader there is probably more information on the subject than would reasonably be expected. On the one hand there are discussions of rather popular topics such as "curses" and on the other a detailed chronology. The work seems to belong to one of those series with a title like "Everything You Always Wanted To Know About ..." or "The Complete ...". The industry apparent on the part of the co-authors is not to be denied. They have produced a book that will serve as an excellent general introduction to the subject, illustrated with enough desiccated corpses to make vivid the history of the process.

Many interested readers will probably be familiar with The Mummy by E. A. Wallis Budge, the second edition of which was published as long ago as 1925. Even then it was out of date, but it has been popular and constantly reprinted. The Mummy in Ancient Egypt fills an apparent need for an up-to-date, carefully conceived and exhaustive reference - more a source to be consulted than a book to be read from beginning to end.

William H. Peck is curator of ancient art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, United States.

The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity

Author - Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson
ISBN - 0 500 05088 0
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £29.95
Pages - 352

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