Grade 6

Weekly Reader Article

Mummy's Secret Recipe

Do you want an ancient recipe fit for a king? Start with a few pinches of salt, mix in a special blend of herbs and spices, then add some gloppy oil and just a dash of beeswax. Oh, and don't forget the main ingredient—a dead king.

Obviously, this isn't your grandmother's prized recipe for stuffing. It's the formula for making an Egyptian mummy!

The ancient Egyptians preserved their dead rulers, believing the dead needed their bodies for the journey to the afterlife. Until recently, many researchers thought the Egyptians mummified their dead through a simple process: drying out the body with salt, then wrapping it with linen soaked in tar.

Two British mummy experts, Richard Evershed and Stephen Buckley, now say the Egyptians were more clever in making mummies than earlier studies showed.

The two chemists discovered that ancient Egyptian priests in charge of the mummification process knew a lot about the drying and bacteria-killing qualities of many substances.

Learning from the Dead

"The Egyptians figured out that it's not enough to just take the guts out, cover the body with salt, and then pop the body in a tomb," Evershed said.

Evershed and Buckley studied 13 ancient Egyptian mummies, some almost 4,000 years old. All of the mummies were surprisingly well preserved. The chemists examined the mummies to understand why Egyptian priests took 70 days to embalm, or preserve, a body.

How to Make a Mummy

According to Evershed and Buckley, embalmers first took the body to an embalming tent outside a city, in case the body began to rot and smell.

The priests cleansed the body in water from the Nile River, then doused the remains with wine to purify the mummy-to-be for its journey into the afterlife.

Next, the embalmers removed the person's lungs, stomach, liver, and intestines through a hole in the side of the body. The mummy makers preserved the organs in special canopic jars for the trip to heaven.

The priests also removed the person's brain by pulling it out in small pieces through the nose. The only important organ the priests left inside the body was the heart, which they believed the dead needed in the afterlife.

The embalmers knew the body would begin to decay, so they packed the corpse with natron, a native Egyptian salt often found at the edges of lakes. The salt drew water from the body, turning it thick and leathery.

It's a Wrap!

As the body dried, the priests packed the skull with natron and plaster. They removed the corpse's real eyes and replaced them with artificial eyes. At each stage of the process, the priests prayed and added religious charms to the corpse.

Evershed said that before the priests completed the mummification process, they wrapped the body in strips of linen. The linen was then treated in a liquid solution made of fir and pine resins, beeswax, and a cinnamon bark known as cassia. They also used myrrh (a reddish substance that oozes from certain trees), palm wine, and camphor (a type of oil).

The priests knew those substances would keep the body dry and stop the corpse from decomposing. Many of the ingredients were also fragrant. This helped to hide the rotting stench of death.

"They knew that if the body was not treated, what they'd get would be a pile of dust," Evershed said.