A Few Words About Mummies


Salima Ikram is Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. She is perhaps best known for her work with ancient Egyptian animal mummies, and is currently the founder and co-director of the Animal Mummy Project at the Egyptian Museum. As such, she is the world’s leading expert on animal mummies. Ikram has a prominent media presence, authoring articles on Egyptology in Egypt Today, National Geographic, and KMT. She has also appeared in documentaries and specials for PBS, Channel 4, Discovery Channel, History Channel, National Geographic Channel, and the BBC. Salima is interviewed here by author and professor Richard Marranca.


RM: Why is the Isis and Osiris story so important to the idea of creating mummies and much else in ancient Egyptian religion and politics? 

SI: The Story of Isis and Osiris is so compelling because it is a love story as well as a promise of eternal life and resurrection. It has all the components for a good tale of swashbuckling, good vs evil, drama, romance, with the good guys winning in the end. For the ancient Egyptians this established and explained the role of divine kingship as well as the idea of eternal life and was key to both state religion as well as personal piety in terms of funerary beliefs.


Article Insert

Isis and Osiris

The family of Osiris. Osiris on a lapis lazuli pillar in the middle, flanked by Horus on the left and Isis on the right (22nd dynasty, Louvre, Paris). Between 874 and 850 BC  Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license, Wikimedia Commons


To begin to understand ancient Egyptian religion and culture, one must fist know the story of  Osiris. It begins with the murder of the god Osiris, a primeval king of Egypt, by his brother Set. Set subsequently usurps Osiris’s throne. Osiris’s wife Isis restores her husband’s body (thus the introduction of the concept of resurrection), allowing them to posthumously conceive their son, Horus. The rest of the story revolves around Horus, who as a child is protected by his mother, but then becomes Set’s rival for the throne. Their violent conflicts end with Horus’s triumph, which restores Maat (or cosmic and social order) to Egypt after Set’s unrighteous and dark reign and ultimately completes the process of Osiris’s resurrection.

The story is key to understanding ancient Egyptian views of kingship and succession, the eternal conflict between order and disorder, and death and the afterlife. Mummification represents the process of resurrection embodied at the core of the Osiris story.


RM: What is the history behind the study of ancient Egyptian mummification?

SI: The majority of the early mummy and skeletal studies used basic tools to extract limited information from mummies. The most simple and common method, sometimes the sole one used when in the field, is visual examination. Such examinations yield crucial information about the bandage patterns, amulets and other objects placed on the mummy, body and arm positions, cosmetics, tattooing, and hairstyles. Although the unwrappings and resulting autopsies are destructive, they still provide invaluable detailed and useful information. Several scientific autopsies were carried out on mummies during the 1970s, with multidisciplinary teams of researchers involved in the investigations (Cockburn et al. 1975; Hart et al. 1977; David 1979; Cockburn et al. 1980: 52–70; Millet et al. 1980; Reyman and Peck 1980; David and Tapp 1984; Goyon and Josset 1988).

Diseases can also be tentatively identified with the naked eye, although such identifications are unreliable. For example, visual examination identified a possible case of poliomyelitis in the mummy of the Pharaoh Siptah (Smith 1912: 70–73). Polio is a viral infection of the central nervous system that manifests itself in the paralysis of one or more muscle groups: Siptah has one short and withered leg. On the other hand, the same symptoms can result from certain types of cerebral palsy. Smallpox has also been suspected in the mummy of the pharaoh Ramesses V, due to the pox markings visible on his face (Smith 1912: 90–92). Visual examination can be augmented by scientific analyses that can provide information about other aspects of mummification, such as identification of the materials used in mummification, or a study of mummified tissues. As the sciences evolved, so did mummy studies.

The first mummy to be submitted to a professional chemical analysis (in an effort to determine the materials used in its manufacture) was the ‘Leeds Mummy’ (George 1828); although the results of this examination raised more questions than answers, it was the first such scientific investigation carried out on a mummy, setting the foundation for further studies, particularly those performed by Alfred Lucas in the early twentieth century. Lucas collaborated extensively with Egyptologists and physical anthropologists on identifying the different materials used in mummification (Lucas 1910, 1931, 1932, 1962). The first microscopic examination of ancient Egyptian tissue was performed by the Viennese laryngologist, Johan Czermak (1852). This sort of study increased dramatically in the twentieth century with the advent of ‘palaeopathology’—a term coined by Marc Armand Ruffer (1921), Professor of Bacteriology in Cairo, meaning the study of ancient diseases from the tissues. One of this field’s major aims is to trace the origins, development, and disappearance of specific diseases and to study the effects of diseases on society (Brothwell et al. 1967). Ruffer used microscopic examination on many samples from mummies and managed to identify diseases as well as organs that had dried beyond recognition (Ruffer 1921, 1911; Moodie 1931). Nowadays of course we have X-rays and very good CT scans that allow for much more nuanced imaging. Of course, it is always helpful to have the data from the earlier studies as it helps us to interpret things that might not be immediately clear or apparent on the CT scan. Imaging methods allow us to study mummy’s nondestructively, which is a great boon.


Article Insert

The Mummy Mask

In ancient Egypt, mummified bodies were intended  to receive the ba, or spirit.  A mask, usually made from linen and plaster and then painted with images of gods and spells for protection, was placed over the head and shoulders of the mummy so that the spirit could recognize it and enter. The mask typically represented the young, ideal image of what the person would look like in the afterlife. The mummy and mask was placed in a painted wooden coffin and surrounded by the food, tools, and gifts needed in the afterlife. This image shows an unidentified mask currently maintained in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Courtesy Smithsonian Open Access.


RM: Can you tell us about the Animal Mummy Project? 

SI: Animal mummies are fascinating, as they seem such a curiosity to us today. They tell us a lot about how the ancient Egyptians thought of animals, and the complex way in which they viewed the world. Pets were beloved and they were preserved so that the souls of the animals and their owners could be united for eternity.

But animals also provided food, and thus food mummies were made to nourish the dead forever. 

Animals were thought to have a unique position in the realm of the gods, and each god had a totemic animal. In some cases, the god’s spirit would enter into one of his/her totemic animals, recognizable to the priests by special markings. The animal would be worshipped and cared for during its lifetime and after its death it would be mummified and buried with great pomp in special tombs. The god’s spirit would move to the body of another uniquely marked creature, a bit like the migratory spirit of the Dalai Lama. 

Animals were also given as votive offerings to the gods, but of course these would be animals that bore no special markings. These were sometimes killed deliberately and given as mummies by pilgrims, taking their prayers to the gods. Curiously many of the animals mummified for this purpose were killed deliberately. Perhaps the priests felt that these animals had been especially blessed as they had been chosen as messengers to the gods.

Recently, there has been an extraordinary find of cat, crocodile, and other mummies at Saqqara. One of the most wonderful was the identification of a lion cub mummy.Also at Saqqara, we found at a place that contained at least 7.8 million dog mummies!

Animal cults provided people with a more intimate relationship with the gods, and  votive offerings of animal mummies might have been seen as a more powerful way of interacting with the gods. These mummies also played a significant role in the economy as this practice involved temple personnel to look after the animals, to obtain them, to mummify them, and other people might have sourced animals as well. Additionally, natron, resins, oils, and bandages had to be obtained, as well as pottery vessels and coffins for the creatures. Thus, a network of trade with huge economic ramifications depended on this practice.


Article Insert

Animal Mummies of Ancient Egypt

Sacred animal mummy containing a dog, circa 400 B.C.–100 A.D. Rogers Fund, 1913.  CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Wikimedia Commons

According to Ikram, pets were loved by their owners and mummified so the animal souls could be united with them throughout eternity. They were also a source of food, so their mummies served to nourish the dead in the afterlife. The Egyptian pantheon of gods also owned totemic animals. Sometimes the spirits of the gods would possess one of their totemic animals. These animals were identified by specific marks by the temple priests, given special care while living and then mummified and memorialized after death. Additionally, animals were killed, mummified and given as votive offerings to the gods, many of which were intended to carry messages to the gods. The practice of mummifying animals was important to the ancient Egyptian economy, in that significant resources were required and exchanged to administer it, involving sourcing the animals and mummifying them, which included the acquirement of natron, resins, oils, bandaging, pottery vessels and coffins, all relying on an extensive trade network.

Recently, Akrim was involved in the discovery of a large cache of animal mummies in a tomb near the recovery of a remarkably well-preserved priestly tomb in Saqqara. The finds included cat, crocodile, and other animal mummies, including a well-preserved lion cub, a first of its kind at Saqqara. Other animal mummy discoveries at Saqqara, said Akrim, included a location containing “at least 7.8 million dog mummies”.


RM: I viewed Secrets of the Dead: Egypt’s Darkest Hour, where you are featured. What you discussed in that film was both interesting and macabre – the mass grave of mummies and body parts strewn about from the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Can you describe that history and carnage? 

SI: The end of the Old Kingdom was brought about by a variety of factors. The most significant was of course climate change, where a series of Low Niles and an increasing desertification caused famine, and therefore unrest. In addition to that, King Pepi the second had an extraordinarily long reign, during which time a lot of power slipped out of his hand and into that of provincial nobility. He also allowed the royal women to marry provincial elites, which gave those people greater power legitimacy, diluting the power of the king.

In order to make sure that the priesthood supported him, he allowed temples not to pay taxes to him and this series of exemption decrees also decreased royal power and general control. In general, what happened is that with this decrease of central authority and control, a lot of the provincial elites started to flex their muscles and challenge central authority, particularly upon the death of the King.

Egypt then fell into a group of warring city states, with the nobles having their own armies, and probably also bringing in mercenaries, both from the south and north-east. These battles were in part responsible for the mass graves. Of course, what you saw on television was really also a result of secondary looters in modern times.

RM: Are there curses in the tombs?

SI: The idea of curses is actually a false one. Tutankhamen’s tomb had no curse inscribed within it. That was made up by journalists. There are some tombs, however,  that do have curses and they basically say that if anyone comes in to violate the tomb, or is impure, then may they be strangled like a goose and may the gods sit in judgement of the violator. A few of them do have more colorful variations on this theme, saying may the snake, may the crocodile, or may the lion destroy you. 

RM: What did ancient authorities do when they realized it wasn’t safe to keep mummies in their tombs – bring them into more secure hiding spots?

SI: Moving mummies was something that really seemed to happen mostly in the Third Intermediate period, although it is quite possible that violated tombs were reconsecrated and bones gathered together and reburied in earlier periods, as well. Of course, in times of political turmoil when raiders, whether Egyptian or from abroad, were terrorizing the countryside, burials had to be protected and this is why bodies were moved about and put into caches for safe keeping.

RM: Beginning in ancient times, the theft and abuse of mummies is rampant. Can you tell us about them being used for fuel and medicine, for amusement and parties?

SI: In addition to eating them for medicine, once the mummies got to Europe they provided people with further ghoulish entertainment: unwrappings. These became social events and were very much a part of Victorian parlor entertainment, with special invitations being sent out for them. Mummy unwrappings did not start in the nineteenth century; many other curious individuals had staged unwrapping shows in previous years. One of the earliest recorded unwrappings occurred in September 1698, when Benoit de Maillet (1656-1738), Louis XIV’s consul in Cairo, unwrapped a mummy before a group of French travelers. Unfortunately he, as with most of his successors in unwrapping, did not record anything concerning the mummy; they only mention some of the amulets found on it. Mummies were so abundant that despite the mania for collection and unwrapping, there still remained sufficient mummies in Egypt for what might be termed ‘useful purposes’.

A special paint, called Mummy Brown, was derived from fragments of mummified bodies and used in oil painting. One singularly pious artist was so upset to find that actual bodies of humans had been used to manufacture his paint, that he took all his tubes of Mummy Brown into the garden and gave them a decent burial. In the nineteenth century an American paper manufacturer from Maine, Augustus Stanwood, used linen mummy wrapping to make brown paper. This paper was sold to butchers and grocers who wrapped meat, butter, and the like in it. Once people found out the source, this stopped being common practice. Cat mummies were shipped from Egypt to Europe for a twofold purpose: first, they helped provide a bit of ballast for the boats; second, they were used as fertilizer until public outcry put a stop to it. Mummies suffered many ignominies in Egypt, as well. They were burnt as firewood. Since wood was scarce and mummies plentiful, their arms and legs were used as torches when people wished to explore sepulchres or see their way at night. Mark Twain reports (one suspects with his tongue firmly in his cheek) that they were even reported as being used as fuel to fire locomotives.


A fragment of mummy linen, typically used to wrap the body during mummification. ca. 1550 BC. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Courtesy Smithsonian Open Access.


RM: Can we talk about museums and displaying mummies for the public? In “From Thebes to Cairo, the Journey, Study, and Display of Egypt’s Royal Mummies, Past, Present, and Future,” you wrote that there have been “religious and political sensibilities.” Can you speak about this?

SI: It is an issue as to whether one should display dead bodies and how one should display them if one is going to. It is hard to say that there is one right or wrong answer. I think that if I were dead and on display in a museum after my death I would not mind particularly, though I would like to be shown in a slightly decent way with some covering. We cannot ask each ancient Egyptian about what he or she thought about this display business. I think that perhaps the way they have been displayed in the Royal Mummy Room with only the heads visible is acceptable. And I also think that maybe if one says a prayer, that is also helpful, but that is a personal opinion. Depending on each person’s religious or personal beliefs, the ideas of whether one should or should not display the dead will vary.

RM: In your books (as well as essays you shared with me), there are state-of-the-art displays of mummies. I recall Meresamun, a temple singer, at the Oriental Institute. The exhibit includes objects from her life, CT scans, and forensic reconstructions of her face. Is the concept here to be very informative, respectful and holistic?

SI: I think yes because then you can see her in all of her glory as a mummy as well as a human being. And for me the most important thing is to think of the ancient Egyptians as human beings because that is why I’m interested in them. I want to know as much as I can about them as individuals, which is why I perhaps prefer non-royalty to royalty.


Cover Image, Top Left: Mummy of a child. Greco-Roman Period Egypt, Penn Museum. Mary Harrsch.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license


About the interviewer

Richard is a college teacher and author. His recent publications were in Minerva Magazine, Raven’s Perch, Paterson Literary Review and Months to Years. He has authored two books in print, Dragon Sutra and New Romantics: Ten Stories, and four books online, such as Alexander in India and NY Interviews. He, his wife Renah and daughter Inanna produce videos, the latest being Childe Hera’s World on YouTube (educational travel).

As a child, Richard was given books on history, archaeology and folklore/myth; his interests have never changed. He and his wife have traveled to sixty countries. Richard studied in Greece for a semester through New York University, from where he obtained his Ph.D. From 2002-2003 he was awarded a Fulbright to teach at LMU in Munich, Germany, as well as six NEH summer seminars, such as Andean Worlds, Transcendentalists/Concord and High Plains Indians. Richard is currently finishing up a collection of speculative stories and The Story of the Egyptian Mummy, a collection of interviews with Egyptologists about mummies.


For more about mummies, see the story about the amazing work experts are doing at the Penn Museum to conserve and study mummies and coffins, and the fascinating things they are learning about them. Published previously at Popular Archaeology.



Subscribe to Popular Archaeology Premium. Still the industry's best value at only $9.00 annually.