Ancient Egypt




Why mummies?

Nobody loved life more than the Ancient Egyptians! And they planned to enjoy it again, in an afterlife which was much like life in this world. They needed to take everything that was important with them-- food, drink, jewelry, symbols -- and, of course, their bodies. Egyptians believed that after death the KA, the spirit of the deceased, remained near the body, so it was important to preserve it as well.

How were mummies made?

Predynastic people did not make mummies. The hot, dry sand dried out their bodies buried directly in it. The Egyptians experimented to preserve bodies in a similar way, and became very expert at the process. Over 3000 years of studies produced variations in the process. But generally:

The Internal Organs were removed through a slit in the left side (made with a flint knife), mummified separately, and placed in canopic jars. The brain was removed with a hook through the nose and discarded. (They thought intelligence and memory resided in the heart!)

The Body was dried out for 40 days with natron, a natural salt found around desert lakes. The process is very much like making beef jerky! As it dried, it shrank just like a raisin is smaller than a grape. (Why do you not need refrigeration for jerky or raisins? Dryness.)

Then the dried body was cleaned, rubbed with oils and resins, stuffed with spices and bundles of linen. Finally, it was wrapped with long strips of linen. The 70-day mummification process included rituals and ceremonies.

Who was Bastet?

Ancient Egyptians mummified animals, as well as people, and revered many animals as sacred to their gods. But they also loved cats as pets, and wealthy families sometimes had their favorite cats mummified and buried. The cat goddess, Bastet, protectress of pregnant women, was so important that there was a temple dedicated to her. It was punishable by death to kill a cat, but many thousands of cats were raised by the priests for sacrifice to Bastet. Our large cat mummy reveals a broken neck on x-ray, indicative of sacrifice.

What is a cartonnage?

CARTONNAGE is an easily molded, linen and plaster material similar to papier-mâché. A portrait MASK, made of cartonnage, was intended to look like the deceased, so the KA could find its mummy. The mask is sometimes covered in a thin layer of gold leaf, indicating wealth or importance. Beauty is idealized, no matter the age or condition of the person at the time of death. The ears and eyes of the mask were exaggerated, so they might perform better throughout eternity. (“The better to hear you with, my dear!”) A BREASTPLATE of cartonnage on the mummy’s chest, has many symbols used in funerary art to help the deceased in the afterlife.

Egyptians wore make-up?

Both men and women wore a lot of dark eye make-up, or KOHL, made of ground lead ore, malachite, or copper. Kohl protected against eye infections, and helped reduce the intense glare of the desert sun. They bathed often, rubbed their bodies with oils and perfumes, and sucked on little candies to sweeten their breath. Women used a red paste on their lips and cheeks, red paint on their fingernails and toenails, and stained the palms of their hands and soles of their feet. Both men and women were known to curl their hair, color their gray, and wear wigs. Men and women also wore all the jewelry they could afford, for beauty and for the magical protection some symbols provided.

Why was the SCARAB beetle so important?

It was a symbol of immortality. How did an insect get to be the symbol of eternal life? The SCARAB rolled its eggs into a ball of dung. When the eggs hatched and new life crawled out of “nothingness,” it looked like magic to the Egyptians. Such a creature must surely be able to help bring the dead back to life, as well. They believed a winged scarab rolled the sun across the sky and caused it to be “born” again.

So, what do you pack for the afterlife?

Containers of all shapes and sizes were vital to this life and the next. They meant survival. Storing and protecting the essentials of life -- food, water, oil, grain, and beer -- as well as perfumes, ointments, and make-up. Clothing, furniture, amulets (good luck charms) and jewelry made the top of the list, too. The Egyptians believed that USHABTIS (SHAWABTIS) worked the crops in the Fields of the Blessed. The USHABTIS were little mummy-shaped statues that would stand up in the afterlife to answer “Here I am!” for the deceased.

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