We've unearthed mummy upon mummy from Egypt, the oldest dating back to 3500 B.C., but one thing has remained a bit of a mystery: what does the mummification process actually entail from a surgical point of view? How did they remove the brains, guts, and other vital organs—what tools did they use and how did they train for it? One anthropologist thinks he's found out.
Much like a 46-million-year-old mosquito fossilized mid-meal, Egyptian mummification has long provided us embalmed snapshots of an ancient way of life. Just last week, we found out why King Tut's mummy had not been preserved in the most kingly fashion: his body seemingly experienced ignition inside its sarcophagus due to a flammable cocktail of oxygen, embalming oils, and combustible linens.
One myth of mummy-making has long appealed to our, or perhaps just my, gross sensibilities: mushy brain parts were usually removed from Egyptian mummies and flushed out through the nose, we’ve been told. And that's not all: more often than not, they were disemboweled and rid of their internal organs as well, to stop decomposition.
In a paper published in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, Dr. Andrew Wade at the University of Western Ontario investigated the literal ins and outs of organ-removal techniques. Wade looked at films and forensic scans from a sample of 50 human Egyptian mummies, noting that there were two main methods of both excerebration (brain removal) and evisceration (body organ removal). Occurrences of brain and organ removal actually increased over time, as mummification was expanded to non-royals.
As Wade explained to Gizmodo over email, methods of brain removal were precise and step-by-step:
In the first, which we see lots of, the brain is removed through a hole made by inserting a metal rod up the nose and breaking through to the braincase. In the second, for which we only have unconfirmed anecdotal evidence, the brain is removed by making an incision in the back of the neck and removing it through the hole in the base of the skull where the spinal cord exits the skull.
The former technique, known as transnasal craniotomy (TNC), is the one we've heard the most about because it's widely supported by tangible evidence. It's interesting to note, however, that the Egyptians confused the function of the brain with that of the heart, assuming that the latter was the center of emotion, thought, and personality—which explains why they disposed of the brain, since they figured it would be of no use in the afterlife.
For years, the widely-held belief was that excerebration was conducted with a hook pushed up the nose into the cranial cavity. Greek historian Herodotus is largely to blame for this, as his fifth century B.C. account of Egyptian mummification stated that embalmers "take first a crooked piece of iron, and with it draw out the brain through the nostrils, thus getting rid of a portion, while the skull is cleared of the rest by rinsing with drugs."
His theory has since been dispelled by the discovery of brain-removal tools that were left in the skull of two mummies, both of which were organic sticks that are believed to have liquefied parts of the brain and removed other sections. According to Wade, most researchers now agree that the Egyptians "broke through the bone with a tool like the hook, used some sort of tool to blend up the brain, and then either allowed it to drain out the nose or flushed it out with water or palm wine or something to that effect." That being said, Wade found that the brain did sometimes remain in the skull, mummified along with the body, although the evidence doesn't suggest a clear pattern of occurrence.
Evisceration, on the other hand, expelled organs that the Egyptians wanted to preserve, usually in one of two ways:
In the first, the best known, the organs are removed through a slit in the left side of the abdomen. In the second, and less frequent method, the organs were removed through the anus, vagina, or a combination of the two. Because it's difficult to clearly identify the route (the legs are wrapped pressed together, so there's lots of skin folds and resin pooled here) we looked at these together as evisceration through the perineal area.
Yet again, Herodotus's account was a bit off-base: he claimed that penny-pinchers could get a quickie evisceration with just a cedar oil enema, a toxic brew that "brings with it the whole stomach and intestines in a liquid state." Wade's findings didn't show extensive proof of cedar oil use—instead, they indicated that social status played a role: transperineal evisceration was only employed during mummification of noble women.
Since the Egyptians placed great value on a comfortable afterlife, they believed you would need access to certain key organs. So, post-evisceration, the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines were dried and stored in four canopic jars that were then kept with the body. As per mummy law, the heart was supposed to stay inside the body, considered integral to an Egyptian's success in the afterlife. But that wasn't always the case, Wade explained to Gizmodo:
As for the removal of the heart, it is my feeling that this important organ was being intentionally removed from commoner mummies in order to ensure that the elite would save a more favourable afterlife for themselves. The data from my studies and from others support the preferential retention of that important organ (the organ of emotion and intelligence) in elites and its absence in commoners... So, the commoners having their hearts removed may simply not have known that their mummies weren't going to keep their hearts, while the elites could retain all of their faculties and enjoy the afterlife as they did their life.
Tough break for the commoners, I'd say, although it wasn't uncommon, after all (pardon the pun). Some rituals were simply reserved for the elite. A snippet from a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead elucidates this further (Faulkner, 1985:156): "As for any noble dead for whom this ritual is performed over his coffin, there shall be opened for him four openings in the sky…. As for each one of these winds which is in its opening, its task is to enter into his nose. No outsider knows, for it is a secret which the common folk do not yet know; you shall not perform it over anyone, not your father or your son, except yourself alone. It is truly a secret, which no-one of the people should know."
Images: Wikimedia Commons; courtesy of Andrew Wade