The aim of preservation was to transform the corpse into a sah, an eternal and perfect image of the deceased, a new body endowed with magical attributes. The various stages of embalming had accompanying liturgy and ritual acts. Furthermore, some materials used had religious purposes in addition to their practical use. Beeswax was sometimes used to coat the body, and had connotations of rebirth; molten resin softened tissues, and also conferred divinity upon the deceased.
Ancient Egyptian records were mum on the embalming process, instead focusing formal and religious subjects. This is likely due to the violations inherent in embalming, regardless of its essentiality for survival after death. It was safer to avoid images of evisceration and desiccation lest they become eternal reality. While tomb chapel decorations oft depicted preparations for the afterlife, mummification was usually only represented by the embalmer-god Anubis tending to a fully wrapped body and its canopic jars.
The best indigenous source on embalming is the Ritual of Embalming, a sacerdotal guide describing the manipulation, wrapping and anointing of the corpse and the accompanying rituals for each step. Unfortunately, the only copies are from the Roman Period and only survive enough to reveal the later stages of the rituals.
Details on the embalming process has been gleaned from passing references to the deceased's duration in the embalming workshop, and formal listings of materials used in mummification. Additional sources include rare findings of embalmers' tools and relatively more common caches of embalmers' refuse.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus visited Egypt during the First Persian Period (~450 BC) and wrote an account mummification. Unfortunately, he revealed little that was not deducible by inspecting the mummy itself. Diodorus Siculus' account offered some new interesting details, and also corroborated Herodotus'.
Inhumation is attested in Egypt as early as 55,000 BC. Burial in dry sand naturally preserved the corpse excellently, including hair and fingernails. Ritual treatments of the corpse occurred as early as ~3500 BC, as discoveries at Hierakonpolis revealed wrapping of corpses in hides or linen, with resin or linen padding to give the deceased an idealized appearance. The use of linen wrappings continued later in ancient Egyptian history.
Beginning in the late Predynastic Period, some high status corpses were dismembered, allowed to decompose and then the bones were repositioned in their (sometimes incorrect) natural positions. This type of burial has been found at Naqada and Adaima and continued in isolated cases as late as Dynasty 6. This may have meant to incapacitate the dead so that they would not harm the living, but may have also been a reenactment of Osiris' own dismemberment and reconstitution.
By the Early Dynastic Period, burials had developed from mere pits in the ground to include wood- or brick-lined burial chambers and coffins. This removed the body from the dry sand and thus led to rapid decomposition. Certain ritual treatments from pre-history were continued and developed, including the use of linen wrappings.
By the Old Kingdom, it was believed that the body had to undergo special treatment to prepare it as a sah, an eternal and perfect image of the deceased. This process included mummification, but remained heavily ritualistic, a reflection of mummification's religious role. Much of the corpse's internal substance was either thrown away or buried in separate containers, often leaving little more than bones, while great attention was given to the external appearance of the wrapped mummy. This created a perfect image around the original corpse. The Old Kingdom's idea image was modelled in resin-soaked linen or plaster to resemble a statue, and was dressed in clothes.
From the First Intermediate to the Roman Periods, the limbs were confined within the wrappings and the head covered with an idealized mask. The physical remains inside the wrappings were often poorly preserved while the external appearance was given much attention. The most notable exception to this was in the Third Intermediate Period, when special efforts were made to retain the corpse's integrity and lifelike appearance.
Standard mummification process
Mummification generally took seventy days.
Mummification was superviesed by the hery seshta (Master of Secrets). The khetemu netjer was nearer to the operations. The khery-hebet interpreted instructive texts. The paraschistes made the incision (for which he was mock abused) and the tarichetues had the unappealing and dirty task of pickler.
The entire process of embalming was highly ritualized. As specific in the Ritual of Embalming, certain linens had their own names and were associated with particular deities including Ra, Hathor and Thoth. In addition, amulets were placed within the wrappings.
Below is described an ideal and expensive mummification performed by professionals. Mummification of royalty took much longer due to successive rounds of desiccation and rinsing and extensive oil and resin treatment. Individuals without access to trained embalming professionals (due to geographic or economic reasons) underwent a very crude form of mummification.
The first step was purification of the corpse by washing. It began shortly after death with the purification of the corpse in a temporary tent of reeds and matting set up near a stream of water. After the sun god was reborn from the watery chaos of Nun each dawn, he was washed by Horus and Thoth and then emerged into the sky. Washing thus became associated with rebirth, and sometimes Horus and Thoth were even depicted as washing the deceased. Washing was done shortly after death, as the hot climate of Egypt caused decomposition to begin immediately. Thus, washing was a religious and practical necessity. A dilute solution of natron in water was probably used. It occurred close to the Nile or to a canal in a temporary tent-like structure, probably of reeds and matting, with two entrances. In the Old Kingdom this structure was called the seh-netjer (divine booth) for the king and the ibu en wab (tent of purification) for non-royals; the term seh-netjer predominated in later periods.
This washing prepared the corpse for evisceration. After washing, the next stages of mummification occurred in another structure called the wabet or per-nefer. The corpse was transferred to a stone slab. Embalmers next removed internal organs, as their quick decomposition would rapidly destroy the entire corpse if left in place.
The first organ to be removed was the brain. According to Herodotus, this only occurred in the most expensive of mummifications. Most brains were not removed, but amongst those that were there is typically an artificial breakage of the roof of the nasal cavity into the cranium. This was usually done through the left nostril, and sometimes left the nose distorted. Other methods of reaching the brain were through an eye-socket, a hole in the cranium or in one case the base of the skull. Extraction of the brain was likely done by very skilled professionals, requiring an iron hook to break up brain tissue which was then extracted via the nostril. Ancient Egyptians attributed no function to the brain, and thus adopted no means to preserve it; it was oft discarded or preserved together with body waste. Via the same route as the extraction, the empty skull was frequently then packed with linen cloth or sawdust, or even poured with some molten resin.
A careful incision was made with obsidian and stone knives. The liver, lungs, stomach and intestines were removed to be embalmed separately. Heart and kidneys were left in situ. A tin or gold plaque bearing a wedjat eye was placed over the incision.
Liver, lungs, stomach and intestines were rinsed with palm wine, treated with spices, dried with natron, coated in resin and wrapped in linen. Each organ was interred in its own canopic jar. This was very ritualistic but nonetheless the organs were sometimes confused. The canopic jars were kept near but not inside the coffin.
The body cavity was washed, then filled with natron sacks, rags and wood shavings. The corpse was completely covered in natron and left to desiccate for forty days.
After desiccation, the desiccants were removed and the corpse was rinsed with a dilute natron solution. The body cavity was then filled with earth, some sawdust and plenty of viscous paste-like coniferous resins and cedar oil. Next, the corpse was anointed with oils and perfumes identical to those used in the Opening of the Mouth. This imparted an "odour of a god" to the corpse.
Hair was carefully arranged. Bald patches concealed by attachment of false plaits. Artificial eyes were placed in the sockets. Hands were placed over the genitals. The wetyu (mummy-wrappings) were linen often derived from discarded clothing. The head and limbs were wrapped first, with wrappings alternating between large sheets and narrow strips. Incantations accompanied each step.