Bodies begin to decay as soon as they die. First your cells begin to break down, releasing enzymes into your tissues, then the billions of bacteria that have been co-existing with your living body begin digesting your dead one. Your digestive system, lungs and brain are the first to go, with your cranial fluids leaking out of your nostrils and ears. Your lips, tongue, genitals and abdomen subsequently bloat from gas produced by the actions of the bacteria.
This process attract large amounts of insects to your body if you’ve been left out in the open. For many of us today the process of decay is a horror we wish to be protected from, but for people many centuries ago it meant much more – it could mean the end of your spiritual life.
For thousands of years, humans have been attempting to protect the dead from the ravages of decomposition. Methods included burying the body to prevent predation; wrapping the body to slow down infestation; binding the limbs and jaw in order to keep the body intact; plugging the orifices to prevent internal fluids from leaking out onto the body; sitting the body upright to enable a natural drainage system for the body; embalming the body; and covering the body with a protective resin.
This latter method incidentally is how mummies got their name. Mineral pitch, a form of bitumen, was once considered a health product and was known as mummia. The appearance of pitch was very similar to the resin used to mummify bodies and so the two eventually came to be substitutes for one another.
Not all mummies are the result of human action, however. Nature has also resulted in some pretty decent mummies, otherwise known as “spontaneous mummies”.Ötzi, who is over 5,000 years old, was preserved in ice. Gebelein Man, also around 5,000 years old, was preserved in a hot, dry climate. Tollund Man, who is around 1,500 years old, was preserved in a peat bog.
In our own Medicine Man gallery we have another very well preserved mummy: the Chimú mummy, believed to date from 1000 to 1470 CE. These naturally occurring mummies may have led to the belief of early man that their spiritual survival depended on the survival of their physical body after death.
The Chimú people lived from around 900AD to 1470AD when they were conquered by the Incas. Living on the North Coast of Peru, it is known they worshipped the Moon and created beautiful and colourful textiles out of cotton and camelid hair. When the Chimú buried their dead, these textiles were used to completely encase the bodies into a “mummy bundle”, often with a mask of gold or metal and a false head.
There were multiple layers of fabric, with the corpse sitting upright inside, with its knees bound up to its chin. Both the layers and the pose assisted the natural mummification process in important ways. Being upright allowed the internal organs to be easily expelled downwards, and away from the body as they liquefied. Also the layers of fabric created an artificially warm microclimate around the body to help dehydrate the tissue. This prevented both the damaging activity of bacteria and deterred insects.
One of the strangest uses of mummies, the dried and preserved remains of human beings, is as medicine. From the days of Galen, mummies were believed to be a magical cure for bruising, dysentery, ulcers and tumours. From the 15th century, “corpse medicine” spread from Europe to England, where it was promoted by popular itinerant healers and barber surgeons.
Many recipes involving mummy arose, claiming to cure everything from worms to inflammation and bleeding from amputations. Some surgeons even carried a bit of mummy around with them everywhere in case of an emergency. Often it was used topically, over aching joints or a wound, but it could also be ingested. The mummies were stolen from their graves and carried over trade routes from cities such as Cairo to Europe. The cures were so popular that fraudulent “mummies” were turning up by the 17th century, usually created from the more recently dead.
The days of mummifying our dead are pretty much gone. If you die now you are far more likely to be refrigerated, embalmed, cremated, plastinated or buried quite quickly. We rarely leave our dead out for the ravages of nature, or entomb them for eternity in a chamber. (Having said that, there are of course a variety of death rituals around the world.)
We’re also more likely to be concerned with conserving those mummies which do still survive (over time many mummies have been destroyed due to climate change and human activity). Since 1898 we also no longer have to rely on unwrapping mummies thanks to the invention of X-rays and CT scans, allowing us greater, and safer, access to their ancient bodies.
Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.
Read about, and watch, three of our mummies getting CT scanned in our previous post.