History of the Egyptian Mummy Part 4

About the history of the Egyptian mummy and tradition of mummification as part of their culture.


In the 19th Dynasty, Ramses II (the Great), who inspired Shelley's "Ozymandias" with his colossal ego (expressed in large statues of himself), had quite ordinary blackheads, arthritis, and hardening of the arteries. Siptah, who died when he was 20, had polio as a child, not a clubfoot as had been supposed before the x-raying.

Ramses V of the 20th Dynasty was stuffed with sawdust; had been a fat man as evidenced by the folds of his skin; was a victim of smallpox; and judging by the size of his scrotum, suffered from a hernia. Ramses VI, whose body had been hacked by grave robbers, was partially bald and had pierced ears.

The mummy buried with priestess-queen Makare of the 21st Dynasty, thought previously to be a human baby, was revealed by x-ray to be a female baboon. No one knows why it was buried with her, though one romantic and unproven suggestion is that perhaps she died in childbirth or shortly after, that her baby lived, and that for solace the baboon was entombed with her.

Though Egyptians were the kings of mummification, other societies have also practiced it. In Peru, members of royal families were eviscerated after death, dried out with herbs, then clothed and put on golden thrones in the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco. The conquering Spanish destroyed these mummies.

Recently, the Chinese opened a tomb from 127 B.C. containing the body of a 50-year-old woman, probably the wife of the wealthy Marquis of Tai. The body was in a remarkable state of preservation, its tissues soft, its femoral artery resembling that of someone only recently dead. It lay partly in a preservative solution, within six nested coffins, and around it was a fabulous array of treasure, also beautifully preserved--still wearable fragile silk, lacquered vessels, 150 small figures including a 23-piece song-and-dance group, and identifiable remains of food. The burial chamber was at the bottom of a 50-ft. pit under tons of charcoal, a thick layer of white clay (which, because it kept out moisture, may have acted as a preservative), red clay, and earth.

In the American West, morticians often mummified unclaimed bodies. The mummy of hobo Anderson McCrew turned up in a carnival in a tuxedo as a petrified man, then became the property of a nurse, who named him Sam and kept him in her basement because she could not afford to bury him. Later a sympathetic undertaker did the job. In 1977 the mummified body of outlaw Elmer McCurdy, thought previously to be a dummy, was discovered in Long Beach. After he was killed by a sheriff's posse in 1912, he was mummified and had a long postmortem career as a wax museum and carnival attraction.

As the song inscribed on Egyptian tombs says: "Make holiday and never tire of it! Behold, no man can take his property with him; no man who has gone can return again."

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