Mumab: A Modern Day Ancient Egyptian Mummy and What He Has Taught Us So Far

Whether it was officially declared or not, this June has certainly been the Month of the Mummy.  June 10 saw the opening of the Modern Day Mummy: The Art and Science of Mummification exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man, and then the incredible Mummies of the World exhibit opened at the Franklin Institute on June 18.  All that was needed for a perfect Month of the Mummy was an American convention of the World Mummy Congress, and that was delivered on June 12 – 16 in San Diego.

It is probably not a coincidence that the Seventh World Mummy Congress was convened at the University of San Diego, a short trip across town from the San Diego Museum of Man, where Mumab had just settled into his new home.  Mumab—short for Mummy of University of Maryland at Baltimore—has the distinction of being the first modern ancient mummy.  The inspiration for his creation came in the mid 90’s when mummy expert Dr. Bob Brier realized that the only way to know how ancient Egyptian mummies were made would be to mummify a human cadaver using the same tools and methods the Egyptians used.  And so he did.

In this article Em Hotep will look at the history of Mumab—how he was made, what was learned from him, and what he is up to now.

Anubis overseeing a mummificationWhen you think of royal Egyptian mummies, the name Mumab probably does not come to mind.  And to be certain, Mumab did not begin as royalty, at least as far as we know.  When he first appears in our story he is simply the cadaver of a Baltimore man in his 70’s who had donated his body to science before passing away.  When he filled out his donor card he was probably unaware that he would ultimately become the first human being to receive a royal Egyptian mummification in over 2,000 years and the benchmark against which actual royal mummies would be compared.

Bob Brier (Courtesy of University of Richmond)

Bob Brier (Courtesy of University of Richmond)

Mumab could not have been in better hands for his transformation.  Dr. Bob Brier, Senior Research Fellow at the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University, has an extensive history with mummies and the mummification process.  In addition to his work with ancient Egyptian mummies such as Tutankhamun and Ramesses II, Dr. Brier has conducted research on more recent quasi-royal mummies like Vladimir Lenin and Eva Perón.  If you want to make a modern mummy using ancient Egyptian methods, Dr. Brier is your best choice.

Dr. Brier’s research kept forcing him to confront the same problem—that the primary and secondary sources on how the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead were incomplete, and in some cases, probably inaccurate.  Certain questions were simply not addressed, and certain answers seemed off the mark.  What really happens when you try to remove a human brain via the nostrils using a long metal hook?  As with any subject in science, the only real way to have a better understanding of how mummies were made was to test hypotheses and attempt to reproduce results.

Ronn Wade (Courtesy of CNN/Turner Broadcasting)

Ronn Wade (Courtesy of CNN/Turner Broadcasting)

Mumab came into being during the early summer months of 1994 to do just that.  Dr. Brier partnered with Dr. Ronn Wade, Director of the Maryland State Anatomy Board and Director of the Anatomical Services Division at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and a huge supporting team of artists, scientists, and technicians, to faithfully reproduce an Egyptian mummification.  After replicating scores of ancient mortuary tools using authentic materials and designs, and gathering embalming materials from the same sources the ancients would have used, they were ready to begin.

In order to fully appreciate Mumab’s contribution to our knowledge of ancient Egyptian mummification we should first take a look at what we knew beforehand and how Dr. Brier’s work changed that.

 

Tombs and Mummies:  If you have one, you’ll want the other

Life goes on in the afterlife—wall painting from the Sixth Dynasty tomb of Metchetchi (Photo by Keith Payne)

Life goes on in the afterlife—wall painting from the Sixth Dynasty tomb of Metchetchi (Photo by Keith Payne)

Ancient Egyptians were incredible tomb builders.  From the simple shaft tombs to the Great Pyramid, when it came to the afterlife the Egyptians liked to be well prepared.  This might lead to the incorrect assumption that the ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death, but that was simply not the case.  They were obsessed with life, and they did not want it to end.  The Egyptian idea of the afterlife was a lot like mortal life, only better.  If you can imagine getting to retire while still in your prime, and never getting older, then you will have a pretty good idea of what the ancient Egyptians had in mind.

However, as is always the case with the hereafter, there were conditions attached.  Along with all of the normal expectations about living a just life, the ancient Egyptians believed that the preservation of the body was absolutely essential for passage into the afterlife.  Over time this led to the development of one of the most complex and ritualized religious systems in history, one which has left us some of the most beautiful sacred monuments and iconography ever created.  But even from the earliest days of predynastic Egypt, mummification was an established part of Egyptian religion.

 

 

Egyptian mummification was the process of preserving a body by completely drying it out before decomposition had a chance to take root.  Decomposition is caused by bacteria, and bacteria require moisture to thrive.  If you remove all of the moisture from a body before the bacteria has a chance to become established then you can prevent decomposition.  This is the same reason why salted meats and dried fruits and vegetables were so important prior to refrigeration—dehydration prevented spoilage and increased shelf life.  Drying out a human body can increase its shelf life by thousands of years.

Ginger—one of the more famous examples of a predynastic natural mummy

Ginger—one of the more famous examples of a predynastic natural mummy

Dr. Brier believes that this connection between preservation of the body and the afterlife developed pretty early in Egyptian history, when the Egyptians realized that a body buried in the hot desert sands did not decay, and that it retained much of its physical characteristics.  Unlike a decayed body, a mummified body could be recognized as the person it once was, which suggested that something of the individual person could survive physical death.  This imperishability of the body therefore became associated with the perpetuation of the human spirit after death.

Recreation of a pre-dynastic sand burial in the Royal Ontario Museum (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts)

Recreation of a pre-dynastic sand burial in the Royal Ontario Museum (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts)

But there was a problem with sand burials.  While it’s true that the dehydrating effects of being buried in hot sand led to really effective mummifications, the body was also vulnerable to exposure.  Winds could uncover the mummified body which then allowed scavengers to damage or destroy it, defeating the whole purpose of mummification—to preserve the body intact.  Egypt was also subject to occasional flash flooding, which could not only carry the body away, it also reintroduced moisture and bacteria to the mummy.

So the Egyptians began thinking in terms of protection.  Obviously the body had to be interred someplace that would be safe from animals and the elements, but this presented its own difficulties.  A body placed inside a tomb without first being preserved would decay the same as one left out in the open.  Somehow they had to find a way to mummify the body before putting it into its tomb, but time was of the essence.  If the body was not dehydrated quickly enough, decomposition could begin.

One easy solution would have been to bury the body in a sand pit until it was mummified, then transfer the body to its permanent tomb.  But this still left the body unprotected during the sand burial, and when you are talking about the afterlife, you want to leave as little to chance as possible.  If you wanted to be absolutely certain that your body was preserved intact, then you wanted both a safe place for mummification and a safe place for interment.  Safe mummification meant drying the body out quickly, but without the benefit of the hot desert sands.

A natural mummy from El Museo de las Momias Guanajuato, Mexico (Photo by Tomas Castelazo)

A natural mummy from El Museo de las Momias Guanajuato, Mexico (Photo by Tomas Castelazo)

Sand burials made natural mummification possible—mummification that occurred entirely without extra efforts being made to preserve the body.  But sand burials were too unpredictable.  Maybe the body would be preserved for the ages, but probably not.  This necessitated a new innovation—burying people inside tombs cut into the limestone bedrock.  But even in a tomb, an unpreserved body would still decay, so with the advent of the Age of the Tomb Builders we also have the beginning of artificial mummification, the process of drying and preserving the body under “laboratory conditions.”

For this reason it can be said that if you had a mummy then you also wanted a tomb, and vice versa.  Having a mummy meant that you would also want the protection afforded by a sealed tomb, otherwise your mummy would be subject to the animals and elements.  But simply putting a body in a tomb did not prevent decomposition, so the body had to be mummified first.  The two were sort of a package deal.

So, how were mummies made?

 

Mummy Making 101

While they may not have been obsessed with death, the ancient Egyptians were obsessive record keepers.  They wrote down everything, from transactions between merchants to poems and love letters.  But two things are conspicuously missing from the written record:  how to build pyramids and how to make mummies.  Bob Brier suggests that mummy making might have been kept mum because it was a trade secret, but we are not entirely without clues.

Huy's mummy workshop

Huy's mummy workshop

One source of insight comes from the tomb of Huy, himself an embalmer.  As stated above, Egyptians believed the afterlife was sort of a better version of their mortal lives, and so they decorated their tombs with scenes from their daily lives, including both work and play.  Being an embalmer, Huy chose to illustrate his tomb with a scene from his mummy workshop.  Dr. Brier points out that while this scene does not show an actual mummification in progress, it does show some of the tools used, and from this we can get an idea of how Huy plied his trade.

Herodotus—Greek historian and early authority on mummification (Photo by Marsyas)

Herodotus—early authority on mummification (Photo by Marsyas)

Another source is the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BC and travelled to Egypt around 454 BC.  Although Herodotus did not witness a mummification first hand, he does seem to have found a chatty embalmer who confided in him three different methods which conveniently correspond with upper, middle, and lower class patrons.  Since the account of an upper class mummification was obviously the most complete (no cutting corners), that was the description most useful to Dr. Brier.

Based on sources such of these, a generally accepted, albeit incomplete, description of the process of royal mummification arose.  The reader should bear in mind that this description is concerned mostly with the practical concerns of mummification—how to dry out a body, and fast.  Mummification was also a very sacred ritual that involved processes that were of a strictly spiritual nature.  For a more complete account, the reader is referred to Dr. Brier’s book, Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art.

Replicas of the sort of hooks used to remove the brain and clean the cranial cavity (Photo courtesy of The Science Museum (UK) Science and Society Picture Library)

Replicas of the sort of hooks used to remove the brain and clean the cranial cavity (Photo courtesy of The Science Museum (UK) Science and Society Picture Library)

The embalming took place inside a sacred tent called the ibu, or, “Place of Purification.”  The body would have first been washed with palm wine and then rinsed with water.  Next, the brain would have been removed.  The ancient Egyptians did not see the brain as a vital organ—thought and emotion were believed to take place in the heart, so the brain was simply removed.  Long hooks were inserted through the nostrils and into the skull, where it was originally believed they were used to tear away the brain a piece at a time.  As we will learn a little later, this was probably not exactly how the hooks were used.

Priests embalming a mummy

Egyptian priests used mixtures of palm wine and fragrent resins to cleanse and seal the body

Once the brain was removed, palm wine and resin were poured through the nostrils to rinse and purify the hollow skull.  This would have removed any remaining blood and brain matter, and the natural disinfecting properties of the wine and resin would have helped kill bacteria, further hampering decomposition.  As the wine evaporated the resin would gradually harden, effectively sealing the skull from within.  More resin would be added later.  Once the brain was removed, the embalmers would have then begun the removal of the internal organs.

Bronze embalming tools (Photo courtesy of The Science Museum (UK) Science and Society Picture Library)

Bronze embalming tools (Photo courtesy of The Science Museum (UK) Science and Society Picture Library)

Extraction of the internal organs was important because, being composed of very soft and moist tissues, they were prone to rapid decay.  Bear in mind that the goal of mummification was to preserve the body before decomposition set in, so the embalmers would have wanted to empty and purify the torso as soon and completely as possible.   A small incision would have been made on the left side of the body through which the organs were removed.

Herodotus speaks of the embalmers using a knife made of black stone, probably obsidian, to make this incision.  However, since copper and bronze cutting tools have been found with other embalming tools, it was assumed that the stone knife was probably used for ritual purposes.  But as we shall see, Mumab taught us that Herodotus was probably right about the stone knife being used to make the incision.

Weighing the heart against the feather of Ma’at—one of the trials of the afterlife (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

Weighing the heart against the feather of Ma’at—one of the trials of the afterlife (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

Like any modern surgeon, the priest responsible for removing the organs through this small incision would have had nimble hands.  The heart was not removed because it was thought to be the center of human thought and emotion, and would be needed to pass the trials of judgment and enter the afterlife.  Other than the heart, everything else came out.  Once the organs were removed, the liver, intestines, stomach, and lungs were separated and readied for preservation.

The organs would have first been washed with palm wine and the aromatic resins of frankincense and myrrh.  In addition to the preservative qualities of these resins, Drs. Brier and Wade discovered that the frankincense and myrrh helped mask the rather unpleasant odors of working with a dead body.  As devout as the embalmer priests may have been, they were only human, and temperatures inside the ibu tent would have soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.   Any relief from the smell would have been welcomed.

Canopic jars of Sitwerut, wife of Horkherty (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Canopic jars of Sitwerut, wife of Horkherty (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Once they were cleansed, the liver, intestines, stomach, and lungs were packed with natron into four special vessels called canopic jars.  Canopic jars could be made of anything from pottery and limestone to more precious materials such as alabaster or even gold.  There were specific jars for each of the four organs, and their look and religious function evolved over time.

 

During the Old Kingdom Period canopic jars were plain-featured with unadorned lids.  Old Kingdom canopic jars were rarely inscribed in any sort of way.  During the Middle Kingdom Period inscribed canopic jars were more common, and the stoppers were shaped like human heads, presumably the deceased.  By the Late Period the jars were much more ritualized, with lids shaped like the heads of the Four Sons of Horus, the gods responsible for the protection of their respective organs.

canopic jars chartWith the brain removed and the viscera packed into their canopic jars, the embalmers were now ready to begin the preparation of the body itself.  First the inside of the torso would be cleansed with palm wine and fragrant resins to flush out any remaining soft tissues and blood.  Then the inside of the body was stuffed with small sacks of natron to absorb moisture from within, and the body itself would have been covered in a mound of natron to pull moisture out.

Natron with a bowl of sawdust, also often used in mummification

Natron with a bowl of sawdust, also often used in mummification

Natron is a naturally occurring mixture of sodium chloride (salt), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and sodium carbonate decahydrate (ash soda).  Many of the rivers and lakes in Egypt’s delta had a high level of salinity, and when water from these sources evaporated they left deposits of natron on their banks.  One area had such an abundance of these salt lakes that it was named Wadi Natrun, the Valley of Natron.  Harvesting this valuable resource for the embalming industry would have undoubtedly been a lucrative business.

Bag of natron from Tutankhamun's embalming cache (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Bag of natron from Tutankhamun's embalming cache (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Natron is vital to mummification because it is the key to dehydrating the body fast enough to prevent decomposition.  Natron helps break down fats into oil and then absorbs these and other liquids from the body.  As the natron absorbed the bodily fluids it would harden into a crust which could then be removed.  Another chemical change that occurs with natron is that as it absorbs moisture it increases in alkalinity, which further helped with mummification by inhibiting the growth of bacteria.

Two of the unanswered questions about mummification, prior to Mumab, were A) how much natron did it take to mummify a human body, and B) how long did mummification take?  There were no real clues pertaining to the first question, but Herodotus contended that 70 days was the standard period for mummification.  After 40 days or so the sacks of natron would have been removed from the body cavity and then replaced with clean natron sacks, resin-soaked linen, aromatic herbs, and wood chips.

It was believed that after 40 days the body would have been finished drying.  The abdominal incision would have been sewn up, the skull stuffed with resin-soaked linen, and all other openings sealed.  Originally the organs would have been left in the canopic jars, but in later years the organs were removed, wrapped in resin-soaked linen, and sealed up inside the body

The body would have then been washed again with palm wine and anointed with resin and pleasant-smelling oils.  The body was now ready to be wrapped in linen, with resin applied to the bandaging to act as a glue and sealant.  The mummy might have had certain details and scriptures painted on it before being placed inside of one or more coffins and finally interred.

A fully wrapped and painted mummy, currently in the British Museum (Photo by Klafubra)

A fully wrapped and painted mummy, currently in the British Museum (Photo by Klafubra)

Opening of the mouth ceremony—preparing the body for the afterlife

Opening of the mouth ceremony—preparing the body for the afterlife

In all, the “70 Day Rule” for mummification could be broken down into 15 days for cleansing and purification, 40 days for dehydration in natron, and then 15 days for wrapping and final rites.  This 70-day cycle also coincided with the 70 days the star Sirius spent “dying” as it made its journey across the night sky into the grave of the horizon.  Sirius, the “Dog Star,” was associated with Anubis, the god of mummification and the afterlife.

So now we will jump forward 2,000 years to Baltimore, 1994, where two mummy detectives were about to tackle some of mummification’s unanswered questions.

 

Mumab

Ronn Wade and Bob Brier

Ronn Wade and Bob Brier

Sources such as Herodotus and tomb paintings, as well as the evidence of the mortuary tools themselves, gave a fairly good idea of how mummification was performed, but Egyptologists knew the picture was incomplete.  They knew, for example, that natron was the key to fast dehydration, but how much natron was required?  These were the types of questions that led Bob Brier to his epiphany—if he was really going to know how the ancients performed mummification, he would have to make one himself.  Dr. Brier decided to reverse engineer an ancient Egyptian mummy.

The potential benefits of doing an ancient Egyptian mummification under controlled conditions were huge.  Not only would it provide answers to questions like how much natron would be needed, it would allow Drs. Brier and Wade to test hypotheses such as whether or not an obsidian knife could have really been used to make the abdominal incision, or how effectively the brain could be removed by pulling it out with long hooks.

Dr. Tori Randall prepares a 550-year-old Peruvian child mummy for a CT scan for the San Diego Museum of Man. Mumab can serve as a point of comparison for actual ancient mummies (Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery)

Dr. Tori Randall prepares a 550-year-old Peruvian child mummy for a CT scan for the San Diego Museum of Man. Mumab can serve as a point of comparison for actual ancient mummies (Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery)

Another advantage of Mumab was that he could serve as a sort of benchmark for mummy studies.  Unlike actual ancient mummies, Mumab’s embalmers knew all of his pre- and post-mortem conditions—how he died, how he was mummified, and how his body looked and behaved during each phase of his transformation.  Mumab would be the case study against which other mummies could be compared.

For the mummy to be an ideal benchmark, the donor had to be as average and unremarkable as possible.  He or she (it ended up being a he) would have to be similar in height and build to an average Egyptian, and he would need to have died of natural causes.  No major surgeries, as these would have produced “forensic artifacts” that one would not see in an ancient mummy.  No major diseases either, as these would have caused potentially unpredictable side effects and results from the mummification process, limiting his use as a benchmark.

As for the mummification itself, Drs. Brier and Wade would have to strictly follow what they knew of the ancient process.  All of the embalming tools would be expertly made replicas of the same tools the ancients used.  This meant recreating details even when the exact function was unknown.  The embalming board, for example, was depicted with what Dr. Brier describes as “railroad tie-like” horizontally-running slats that would have elevated the body several inches above the board.  At the time, the reason for these slats was unknown, but they were faithfully reproduced.

Linen from Tutankhamun’s embalming cache

Linen from Tutankhamun’s embalming cache (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The ingredients would be, as much as possible, gathered from the same sources the ancient Egyptians would have used.  Four hundred pounds of natron were gathered from the Wadi Natrun.  Frankincense and myrrh were brought from Yemen, the same trade routes that supplied the ancient embalmers.  In some cases ingredients and materials had to be sought where available.  Palm wine, for instance, was acquired from Nigeria, and they had to go to Ireland to purchase 100 yards of pure, untreated linen.

 

 

The atmosphere and working conditions were also reproduced as accurately as possible.  For the embalming, Drs. Brier and Wade erected their own ibu tent inside a room at the University of Maryland Medical School.  The temperature inside the tent was kept at a constant 105 degrees Fahrenheit, with 22% humidity—the same conditions under which the ancient embalmers would have worked.  With the tools, ingredients, and working conditions reproduced as faithfully as possible, they were ready to begin.

So how exactly did this work? (National Geographic)

So how exactly did this work? (National Geographic)

One of the first things Drs. Brier and Wade learned was that a brain cannot be pulled out of the skull through the nostrils by long hooks.  Brains are pretty mushy, so it was sort of like trying to pull soft tofu through the neck of a wine bottle with a fondue fork.  They discovered that the hooks were probably used to scramble the brain into a liquid that could then be poured out.  The barbed shape allowed pieces of linen to be inserted and then pulled back out, so the hooks were a kind of multi-purpose cranial cleaning tool.

Obsidian scalpelsAnother thing Mumab taught us was that Herodotus was right about the stone knife.  Dr. Brier had enlisted a large team of specialists to make the tools he would need to assure they would be both authentic and of appropriate quality.  What he discovered in the ibu tent was that the obsidian knife worked considerably better than the copper and bronze knives.  In fact, obsidian is able to take an edge 1/6th the thickness of a modern scalpel, and is used by some surgeons today.  Dr. Brier reported that the “stone knife” used by the ancient embalmers cut more cleanly and neatly than surgical steel.

Ancient Egyptian embalming tableRegarding the embalming board, they learned the purpose of the “railroad tie-like” slats.  During the drying out phase, when the body is covered with natron, it is just as important that it lies on top of a bed of natron as well.  Gravity pulls the moisture in a dead body downward.  If a body is left lying on its back, the fluids will pool in the parts that touch the ground—the upper back, buttocks, and backs of the legs.  This is why dead bodies appear heavily bruised on their downward facing side.

For this reason, there had to be a good quantity of natron beneath the dehydrating body.  But if you lay a body on top of a pile of something the consistency of table salt for forty days, you find that another effect of gravity is displacement.  The natron will gradually conform to the shape of the body as the heavier parts push it outward and away.  This results in thinner layers of natron where you need it the most—the upper back, buttocks, and the backs of the legs.

Mumab on his mortuary board

Mumab on his mortuary board

The horizontal slats on the surface of the embalming board created furrows into which the natron could be packed, and these troughs held the natron in place throughout the entire drying process.  Parts of the body that did not lie flat, such as the neck and the small of the back, could be situated over the slats (with natron beneath them as well, of course), so that as the body settled the lower parts would still be nestled in a thick bed of natron.  So the embalming board was specifically designed to allow the back of the body to dehydrate evenly.

 

 

Once the body was packed in natron it was time to close up the tent and wait.  Dr. Brier decided on a 35-day drying period.  At the end of the 35 days the tent was reopened and the natron was removed from the body.  The first thing the researchers noted was that after 35 days in natron the mummy looks pretty much the way it will thousands of years later.  So it is not the passage of time that gives mummies their characteristic withered look, it is the actual dehydrating process itself.

Another thing Dr. Brier noticed was that Mumab weighed more than expected.  The body weighed 180 lbs at the beginning of the drying process, and after 35 days he only weighed 60 lbs.  That was a significant loss, but it was still too heavy for a fully desiccated body.  Mumab was not done yet.  But there were no signs of decomposition either, and the presence of moisture in the larger muscles meant that the body was still a little flexible.

Wrapping Mumab

Wrapping Mumab

Dr. Brier had first thought that since the body had not completely dehydrated in the 35 day period that the experiment had failed, but he wanted to be certain, so he decided to put the mummy back into the ibu tent for another three months.  Rather than simply repacking the body in natron, the team decided to do a preliminary wrapping, which is when Dr. Brier began to suspect that the goal of the 35 day drying period may not have been total dehydration after all.  The flexibility provided by the remaining moisture made wrapping the mummy much easier than it would have been if it was completely dried out.

When the Egyptian priests applied the linen wrapping they didn’t simply roll the body up like a cocoon, they wrapped the limbs individually and a lot of attention was paid to detail and thoroughness.  Completely dried out bodies are very brittle, and the sort of jostling required by wrapping the body would make damage very likely.  But after the 35 day period (or 40, by Herodotus’ reckoning) the body was dry enough that it could receive a preliminary wrapping without having to worry about decomposition taking place under the bandages, but pliable enough that the body would not be damaged during this process.

Pliability also meant that the body could be posed during the preliminary wrapping.  This was important for royal mummies because the positioning of the arms denoted social rank.  Once the mummy was completely dried out this would have been impossible.  The arms would have simply broken.

Ptolemaic Period mummy on display at the Louvre,Département des Antiquités égyptiennes. This sort of intricate wrapping would have required constant manipulation of the body, including the limbs. Could this be done with a fully dehydrated body? (Photo by Dada)

Ptolemaic Period mummy on display at the Louvre,Département des Antiquités égyptiennes. This sort of intricate wrapping would have required constant manipulation of the body, including the limbs. Could this be done with a fully dehydrated body? (Photo by Dada)

So Mumab taught us that the 35 (or 40) day drying period in natron was not intended to completely dry the body out.  When the mummy is drying it is important to have as much of the skin as possible in direct contact with natron.  This means that posing the mummy in its final position during the 35 day period would probably not have been possible as this would have meant that part of the arms and torso would not have been exposed to the drying agent.

Mumab wrapped

Mumab wrapped

Dr. Brier concluded that the 35 days in natron dehydrated the body just enough to stall decomposition until the total process was completed, but not so much that the body could not be posed and safely receive its preliminary wrapping.  When Mumab was finally taken out of the tent after the three month period, Dr. Brier’s conclusion was vindicated—the body now weighed about 38 lbs, so it was completely dehydrated, and there had been no decomposition.  The experiment was a success.

The final step was a complete set of CT scans of the mummy.  This was important for researchers who would come later to compare actual ancient mummies to Mumab.  The CT scans were a sort of road map of what a royal mummy could be expected to look like.  Also, one of Mumab’s feet was left unwrapped so that every couple of years a tissue sample could be taken to assure that all was well and there was still no decomposition.

Bob with Mumab (Courtesy of National Geographic)

Bob with Mumab (Courtesy of National Geographic)

Mumab filled a lot of the gaps in what we knew about ancient Egyptian mummification.  We now know how the brain was probably extracted—not piece by piece, but more like pouring gravy from a teapot.  We know that the sharpest tool in the embalmer’s kit was not made from copper or bronze, but from obsidian.  We know how the design of the embalming board assured even dehydration and prevented pockets of blood and fat from settling and putrefying.  And we know that the mummy was not removed from natron at 35-40 days because it was finished, but because it was ready for wrapping and posing.

Dr. Brier also learned how much natron it takes to mummify an average human being—400 lbs—which is a good thing, because that was all he had collected!

 

Mumab Today

After being stored at room temperature for sixteen years at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Mumab still shows no evidence of decay.  He made his West Coast debut on June 10, 2011, when he went on permanent loan to the San Diego Museum of Man Modern Day Mummy exhibition.  Although he takes center stage, he shares the spotlight with shrunken heads from Ecuador, a 1,800-year-old mummy from Denmark found in a bog with a noose around his neck, as well as other mummies from around the world.

The exhibition includes a lecture series covering subjects such as the role of MRI and CT scans in mummy forensics, funerary practices in American history, comparing Hollywood mummies to the real thing, and natural mummification in Southern California.  The exhibit also takes a look at the sort of difficulties mummy researchers might encounter while working in the field, such as what to do when a mummy cannot be moved due to technical, cultural, or ethical reasons.

Lemon Grove Girl and Infant—one of the ethical dilemmas mummy researchers face is what to do with stolen mummies (Photo by Superfem)

Lemon Grove Girl and Infant—one of the ethical dilemmas mummy researchers face is what to do with stolen mummies (Photo by Superfem)

One example of an ethical dilemma comes from the SDMoM’s own collection.  Two of the mummies on display, those of a young woman and a baby, come with a troubling provenance.  Thought to be around 500 years old, the mummies were discovered in a cave in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1966 by two teenagers who then smuggled them illegally across the border and stored them in their garage, where they were left to be rediscovered by new owners.  Naturally, the police were called but, once murder is ruled out, what does one do with stolen mummies?

In this case the mummies were given to the SDMoM by the government of Mexico, but not all situations are as open and shut.  What if the mummies had been purchased from a private collection before their history was uncovered?  Reputations and careers have been damaged by circumstances such as these, and museums typically end up losing both the money invested and the mummies themselves, all because somebody somewhere along the chain of custody did not follow protocol.

Non-invasive methods such as this CT Scan of a Peruvian mummy allow for better analysis of mummies with minimal risk of damage (Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery)

Non-invasive methods such as this CT Scan of a Peruvian mummy allow for better analysis of mummies with minimal risk of damage (Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery)

By lending his star power to the SDMoM, Mumab is helping bring attention to these matters.  The ethical issues of properly handling and studying mummies were also the focus of this year’s World Mummy Congress, which is probably part of the reason why the attendants were treated to a fieldtrip to the SDMoM exhibition.  Advances in noninvasive analysis, such as CT and MRI scans, help address some of these concerns, but science can only go so far.  Mummies were once living human beings, and not all of them donated their bodies to science.

Mumab will continue to play his role as ambassador between ancient mummies and modern researchers in his new home at the San Diego Museum of Man.  As the tools and methods of mummy studies continue to evolve, Mumab will undoubtedly have more to teach us in the future.  And he will have plenty of time to do so.  Thanks to the expert treatment of Drs. Brier and Wade, Mumab can expect to be around for at least a few thousand years more.

Mumab at his new home (Courtesy of the San Diego Museum of Man)

To see more images of Mumab at the San Diego Museum of Man, as well as learn more about the Modern Day Mummy exhibition, be sure to read Modern Day Mummy—The San Diego Museum of Man Takes You From the Lab to the Field here on Em Hotep!

 

Bonus Video

If you would like to watch a full-length lecture by Dr. Bob Brier discussing Mumab, the following video has been provided to the public by the University of Richmond.

 

Copyright by Keith Payne, 2011.  All rights reserved.

The following photographs and images are used in accordance with the GNU Free Documentation License and may be reused under the same provisions:  PredynasticBurial-ROM.png by Keith Schengili-Roberts; natural mummy from El Museo de las Momias Guanajuato, Mexico by Tomas Castelazo; AGMA_H~1.JPG by Marsyas; MiddleKingdomCanopicJar_RosicrucianEgyptianMuseum.png by Captmondo; painted Mummy_at_British_Museum by Klafubra; Egyptian_mummy_(Louvre).jpg by Dada.  The following photographs and images are used in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 2.0 Generic License and may be reused under the same provisions:  WLANL_-_andrevanb_-_kist_uit_de_27-_31e_dynastie_(4).jpg by Andrevanb; Ginger predynastic natural mummy by Seriykotik1970; mummy CT scan from SDMoM by Official U.S. Navy Imagery; Lemon grove girl by Superfem; ct scan of peruvian mummy by Official U.S. Navy Imagery.  The following photographs and images are used in accordance with theCreative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 2.5 Generic License and may be reused under the same provisions:  Douamoutef.jpg Dieu-Hapi.jpg Amset.jpg , and  Kebehsenouf.jpg by Charly75.  The following images are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and are used in accordance with their usage policies (all rights reserved):  h2_dapt_4.jpg, hb_1988_437_2.jpg, and hb_09_184_220.jpg.  The image “embalming table.png” from the British Museum is copyrighted by the Trustees of the British Museum and is used in accordance with their usage policies.  The following photos, images, and video clips are using in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of copyright law and are reproduced for the sole purpose of promoting discussion and are not used in any way that would inhibit the sale or trade of the originals:  Photo “Bob Brier” courtesy of the University of Richmond, all rights reserved; Photo “Ronn Wade” courtesy of CNN/Turner Broadcasting, all rights reserved; hommedia.png courtesy of The Science Museum (UK) Science and Society Picture Library, all rights reserved; 10284168.jpg courtesy of The Science Museum (UK) Science and Society Picture Library, all rights reserved; “ x-ray of mummy brain removal” from the video “Egypt: Secrets of the Pharaohs”, courtesy of National Geographic, all rights reserved;  “ Bob with Mumab” from the video “Egypt: Secrets of the Pharaohs”, courtesy of National Geographic, all rights reserved; “ronbob.jpg”, “Mumab on his mortuary board”, “wrapping Mumab”, “Mumab wrapped” courtesy of Cartage.org; video clip “embalming a mummy” from the video “Royal Mummy”, courtesy of National Geographic, all rights reserved; video clip “gathering ingredients for Mumab” from the video “Egypt: Secrets of the Pharaohs” courtesy of National Geographic, all rights reserved; video clip “dehydrating the body with natron” from the video “Egypt: Secrets of the Pharaohs” courtesy of National Geographic, all rights reserved.  The following photos and images are in the public domain:  “Huy’s workshop”; MALER_~1.JPG; BD_Hunefer_cropped_1.jpg by Jon Bodsworth; Sawdust_and_Natron_salt_for_mummification_39a798e19218ea60f039.jpg; Opening_of_the_mouth_ceremony.jpg.

 

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9 comments so far

FABrandt
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 1 

Fascinating! …And Dr Briar always tries to be accurate and current, as do you! Thank-you.

June 28th, 2011 at 2:22 pm
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 2 

Thanks Fab! :-)

Dr. Brier is brilliant, and he is a wonderful speaker. I have not seen him in person, but I am sure the opportunity will happen. Can you believe he actually taught a semester at University of Louisville, and I missed out on that?

I’m still kicking myself!

The next article will be a return to the God’s Wives of Amun series, which should be both interesting and fun. And, of course, back onto Project Khufu… ;-)

–Keith

June 28th, 2011 at 5:54 pm
Joan
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 3 

Another article that was so worth waiting for! You had me spellbound throughout the writings and videos.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing Dr. Bob Brier. He can captivate a person or audience with detailed knowledge in his chosen field…mummies.

And don’t keep kicking yourself over missing him. Let me do it! *KICK* :)

Joan

June 30th, 2011 at 3:58 pm
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 4 

Thanks Joan!

For the compliment and the kick! I’m a sucker for punishment..

More mummies to come!

–Keith

June 30th, 2011 at 9:47 pm
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 5 

I just noticed that Metacafe adds their own subtle little promotions at the bottom of the videos, right after repeating the name of the video. The video showing Bob Brier at the suq buying frankincense, for example, adds the line “Gathering Ingredients for Mumab—The most popular videos are here” to the bottom. I can live with that, they need to recoup their costs for providing a fine service for free. But the promotion they added to the other video kind of got a chuckle out of me: “Embalming a Mummy—The best bloopers are here”.

Can you imagine what the blooper reel from Mumab’s mummification might have looked like?

Dr. Wade: Ok, I’m just going to reach up into the chest here and get this other lung… Ok, got it.. and.. there it is.

Dr. Brier: Good. Ok.. wait a second.. that.. that’s not a lung..

Dr. Wade: Uh oh..

Dr Brier: Ronn! That’s not a lung! That’s his heart! You pulled his heart out!

Dr. Wade: Oh jeez..

Dr. Brier: Oh, this is bad..

Dr. Wade: Ok, maybe nobody will notice..

Dr. Brier: Nahh.. A missing heart isn’t the sort of thing that will show up on a CAT scan!

Dr. Wade: Hey, there’s no reason to be sarcastic!

Dr. Brier: You need to put it back, man. Before anyone notices.

Dr. Wade: YOU put it back, Mr. Mummy! I’m tired of digging around in this guy.

Dr. Brier: No way! I’m the one who had to blow into one of his nostrils to get the rest of the brain out!

Dr. Wade: Yeah, ok, that was gross. I’ll put it back. Someday we’ll laugh about this, Bob.

Dr. Brier: Nobody can ever know.. This is just between you and me.

Dr. Wade: And Mumab..

Dr. Brier: And Mumab..

July 11th, 2011 at 4:42 pm
Joan
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 6 

Keith…you are one sick puppy! Wait until Drs. Brier and Wade read this!

July 11th, 2011 at 7:19 pm
David Vu
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 7 

Thank you for this interesting article! I am a radiologist and we performed an MRI on Mumab in Sept 2010 and I will be talking about our findings in August at the Museum of Man in San Diego. Can you contact me at dvu72@yahoo.com ? I would like to get some information. Thanks!
David Vu

July 11th, 2011 at 9:26 pm
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 8 

Hi David,

I just got an email out to you. Em Hotep is at your service! Any way I can help raise awareness about your work and Mumab’s career, just let me know.

–Keith

July 13th, 2011 at 11:40 am
Kathleen
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 9 

Bob is my ex-brother in law and I think he is a great lecturer.

November 17th, 2012 at 7:21 pm

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