Ancient Egyptian mummification was never intended to preserve bodies, new exhibit reveals

A gold mummy that is part of the museum exhibition.
The mummy of a woman named Isaious, daughter of Demetrios. (Image credit: Manchester Museum)

It's long been believed that ancient Egyptians used mummification as a way to preserve a body after death. However, an upcoming museum exhibition indicates that was never the case, and instead the elaborate burial technique was actually a way to guide the deceased toward divinity.

Researchers from the University of Manchester's Manchester Museum in England are highlighting the common misconception as part of preparations for an exhibition called "Golden Mummies of Egypt" that opens early next year. This new understanding about mummification's intended purpose essentially upends much of what is taught to students about mummies.

"It's a big 180," Campbell Price, the museum's curator of Egypt and Sudan, told Live Science.

So, how exactly did this misconception flourish for so long? Price said the Western-led idea began with Victorian researchers who wrongly determined that ancient Egyptians were preserving their dead in a similar fashion as one would preserve fish. Their reasoning? Both processes contained a similar ingredient: salt.

"The idea was that you preserve fish to eat at some future time," Price said. "So, they assumed that what was being done to the human body was the same as the treatment for fish."

Related: Hundreds of mummies and pyramid of an unknown queen unearthed near King Tut's tomb

However, the salty substance used by ancient Egyptians differed from salt used to preserve the catch of the day. Known as natron, this naturally occurring mineral (a blend of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride and sodium sulfate) was abundant around lake beds near the Nile and served as a key ingredient in mummification.

"We also know that natron was used in temple rituals [and applied to] the statues of gods," Price said. "It was used for cleansing."

Price said that another material commonly associated with mummies is incense, which also served as a gift to the gods.

"Look at frankincense and myrrh — they're in the Christian story of Jesus and were gifts from the three wise men," Price said. "In ancient Egyptian history, we've found that they were also appropriate gifts for a god."

The coffin of Tasheriankh, a 20-year-old woman from the city of Akhmim who died around 300 B.C.  (Image credit: Manchester Museum)

He added, "Even the word for incense in ancient Egyptian was 'senetjer' and literally means 'to make divine.' When you're burning incense in a temple, that's appropriate because that's the house of a god and makes the space divine. But then when you're using incense resins on the body, you're making the body divine and into a godly being. You're not necessarily preserving it." 

Like Egyptians, Victorian Egyptologists also believed that the deceased would need their bodies in the afterlife, which added more credence to the misunderstanding of mummification.

"It didn't help that there was a biomedical obsession that was born from Victorian ideas about needing your body complete in the afterlife," Price said. "This included removing the internal organs. I think that actually has a somewhat deeper meaning…and is basically about turning the body into a divine statue because the dead person has been transformed."

Archaeologists often find mummies placed with a sarcophagus that shows the likeness of the deceased.

"In English, a mask is something that obscures your identification; a portrait reveals identity," Price said. "Those objects, panels and masks give an idealized image to the divine form."

As part of the exhibition, the museum will display a number of burial masks, panel portraits and sarcophagi associated with ancient Egyptian burials, offering further proof of the original intentions of mummification.

"Golden Mummies of Egypt" will be on display at the Manchester Museum beginning Feb. 18, 2023. The museum has also published a book with the same title written by Price to accompany the upcoming exhibition.

Jennifer Nalewicki
Live Science Staff Writer

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Salt Lake City-based journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics and more. She covers several science topics from planet Earth to paleontology and archaeology to health and culture. Prior to freelancing, Jennifer held an Editor role at Time Inc. Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin.

  • Sebakhet
    This is being presented as a very black vs. white topic, when in fact, it's a complicated issue. Firstly, the concept of preserving the body for divinity is absolutely correct; however, it's not the only reason. In Ancient Egypt, after the First Intermediate Period, divinity was a concept that became accessible to all people. Before this, mummification was something for nobility only. It is commonly known that humans, when they die, are judged for their actions. In this case, the Weighing of the Heart takes place in the Hall of Two Truths, where your heart (left in the body) is weighed on a set of divine scales against the Feather of Ma'at (think: universal balance, all that's right). There are many steps to becoming akhu, one of the 'blessed dead', too many to list here. Most important is, if your heart is as light as the feather, you become justified and are introduced to Osiris, King of the Dead. He permits you to enter His Kingdom as a God. Therefore, each person "becomes an Osiris" upon death - BUT.. the body is still needed.

    There are two parts to the soul, the ka and the ba. Your ba is able to return to your body after you have died, and is often believed to be wandering around, collecting the offerings the family has left, overseeing their loved ones, and generally being present. This occurs at night, and in the morning, your justified soul reunites. Obviously, you need a body to accomplish this. So, yes, as a matter of fact, they really were trying to preserve their bodies. (I have never heard the fish analogy, and I find it difficult to believe the Victorians thought mummies were like preserved food, especially given the lack of evidence for cannibalism.)

    The only other point to mention is the idea that the bodies were being hollowed out so they'd become like divine statues. What happens is precisely opposite. The statues of the Gods were not viewed as statues (or idols). When the image is consecrated by the priests, in a ritual known as "Opening of the Mouth", the statue then becomes a body, a vessel for the God to inhabit. This same ritual takes place for the deceased as well, just before their final interment, allowing the person to have use of their senses in the afterlife.

    So although the organs were removed, and preserved in canopic jars in the same tomb, it was not to make them like a statue, since they did not worship statues. They revered and honored the God inside of the statue, the essence of divinity.

    TL;DR.. everyone becomes a God when they die, but they still need their bodies. The ancients did not worship idols and weren't attempting to turn bodies into statues, nor preserve them like... um, fish??
  • Chaven Yenketswamy
    I have a different understanding something I realised only after my Dad passed away. In our tradition the body of the deceased gets cremated. However it introduces a problem for the spirit as it no longer has a body so it dwells within the bodies of the living to continue to survive. But this attachment also leads to rebirth the process of reincarnation. If you want to stop the process of rebirth then you don't cremate the body but mummify which makes the spirit continue to live in this state without reentering the cycle of birth and death. Although our tradition cremates the death there are exceptions for certain categories of people like saints who get placed in tombs and are not cremated.