An Egyptologist has deciphered a step-by-step guide detailing the sacred art of mummification and how to prepare people for their one-way journey to the afterlife.
The ancient Egyptian guide for embalming was discovered within the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg, a 6-meter (over 19 foot) long papyrus dated to approximately 1450 BCE. Much of this papyrus details ancient knowledge of herbal medicine and swellings of the skin, but a small section on embalming has recently been reanalyzed in a PhD thesis by Sofie Schiødt, an Egyptologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
This new appreciation of the text is exciting for a bunch of reasons. Only two surviving ancient Egyptian texts on mummification have ever been identified since this skill was only practiced by a small number of highly skilled individuals who passed their knowledge down orally, like a master artisan telling their apprentice about the tricks of the trade. At over 3,500-years of age, however, this text is thought to be the oldest surviving manual on mummification discovered yet, beating the two other known examples by more than 1,000 years.
It’s also an exceptionally detailed guide. The text explains how the whole mummification process usually took around 70 days, including a 35-day drying period and a 35-day wrapping period, with the embalmers actively working on the mummy every four days.
“A ritual procession of the mummy marked these days, celebrating the progress of restoring the deceased's corporeal integrity, amounting to 17 processions over the course of the embalming period. In between the four-day intervals, the body was covered with cloth and overlaid with straw infused with aromatics to keep away insects and scavengers,” Schiødt explained in a statement.
Firstly, the embalmers conduct a purification of the body, in which the deceased's brains, major organs, and eyes are removed. Then begins the drying period where the inside and outside of the body is treated with dry natron, a naturally occurring salty material harvested from dry lake beds. The second 35-day period was dedicated to the encasing of the body in wrapped bandages and aromatic substances. Once this stage of the mummification process was completed on day 68, the mummy was placed in the coffin, after which the final days were spent on ritual activities to ensure a smooth passage into the afterlife.
“One of the exciting new pieces of information the text provides us with concerns the procedure for embalming the dead person's face,” added Schiødt.
“We get a list of ingredients for a remedy consisting largely of plant-based aromatic substances and binders that are cooked into a liquid, with which the embalmers coat a piece of red linen. The red linen is then applied to the dead person's face in order to encase it in a protective cocoon of fragrant and anti-bacterial matter. This process was repeated at four-day intervals.”
The papyrus gained its full name – the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg – as it currently belongs to the Louvre Museum in Paris and the University of Copenhagen's Papyrus Carlsberg Collection. While it’s thought to be the second-longest medical papyrus surviving from ancient Egypt, much of the text is still missing. The Louvre Museum and the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection hope to publish the papyrus in 2022, so stay tuned for more insights into the strange world of ancient Egyptian medicine.