Online Review: Book

Mummies and Death in Egypt

Rosalie David

113.2

By Françoise Dunand and Roger Lichtenberg. With a foreword by Jean Yoyotte, translated from the French by David Lorton. Pp. xiii + 234, b&w figs. 55, pls. 200. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y. 2006. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-8014-4472-2 (cloth).

The scientific and analytical study of Egyptian mummified remains has added a new and increasingly important dimension to Egyptology and paleopathology. Although the first multidisciplinary investigations of mummies were undertaken more than 200 years ago, the real value of this type of research only began to be recognized in the late 20th century. This book provides an informative introduction to the process of mummification as practiced by the ancient Egyptians, together with their associated beliefs, rituals, and funerary customs, and also an overview of the scientific examination of mummified remains and the contribution this can make to other areas of study.

In part 1, nine chapters survey the development of mummification in Egypt over a time span of some 3,000 years. Chapter 1 traces the first known evidence of this technique to the period between the earliest settlements and the first historical dynasties, placing it in the context of contemporary advances in funerary architecture and practices. Chapter 2 demonstrates the progress achieved during the Old Kingdom, exemplified by the contents of the tomb of Queen Hetepheres at Giza, which proves that the two main stages of intentional mummification—evisceration and dehydration of the body—were already part of the process. Again, these advances are viewed in relation to an increased sophistication found in the construction of pyramids and other tombs and the introduction of funerary beliefs associated with the Pyramid Texts and the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony.

During the Middle Kingdom, democratization of religious beliefs resulted in an increase in the range and quality of funerary goods provided for nonroyal persons, and chapter 3 assesses the parallel developments in mummification. From the New Kingdom, archaeologists have discovered significant individual mummies, such as Tutankhamun, and groups of bodies (the caches of royal and priests' mummies). Chapter 4 reviews this resource of evidence within the wider context of developments in funerary architecture (the Valley of the Kings, Deir el-Medina, and Saqqara) and tomb furnishings. Beliefs associated with immortality, the Day of Judgment, and the cult of Osiris, the god of the dead, are also considered.

During the later stages of pharaonic history, new trends emerged. Chapter 5 describes major innovations in mummification introduced in the 21st Dynasty. It also explains why the royal mummies of the 22nd and 23rd Dynasties have not survived: at this time, the capital city and royal necropolis were moved north from Thebes to Tanis, where the environmental conditions were less conducive to preserving human remains. This section also comments on the new features in tomb architecture and equipment introduced in the later Kushite, Saite, and Persian periods.

Chapter 6 focuses on the changes implemented during the Graeco-Roman period, when many immigrants apparently adopted Egyptian funerary customs and there was a significant increase in the production of mummies. The authors' fieldwork and analytical studies on mummies of this period provide detailed, firsthand information not usually presented in general works. As well as describing the variety of tomb architecture that included Egyptian, Greek, and hybrid styles, this chapter explains how Greek funerary customs, such as cremation, were practiced alongside the Egyptian traditions. In addition to the changes in mummification techniques, the elaborate bandaging and range of artifacts associated with mummies of this period are discussed; these include items of cartonnage (a composition of papyrus and gum or glue used to manufacture masks and other pieces of funerary equipment), stucco masks, and the renowned Fayoum portraits (a painted panel, dating to the Roman period, that was placed over the face of a mummy). An important point made here (also followed up elsewhere) is that, although some scholars claim that the standard of mummification had declined in this period, the authors' research does not support this viewpoint.

The chronological survey is then interrupted by a detailed description of the mummification procedure (ch. 7), based on evidence from literary, archaeological, and bioscientific sources; related rituals including the funeral and the offering of food to the dead are also addressed. In the reviewer's opinion, this general account of mummification would have been more appropriate in an earlier chapter, as background to the historical overview. An interesting chapter (8) on animal mummies then leads to chapter 9, which describes how mummification was finally adopted for some Early Christian burials.

Part 2 of this book explores the contributions made by scientific studies on mummies. Chapter 10 provides a historical overview, explaining how collectors' acquisitions of mummies were part of a more generally burgeoning interest in Egyptology; it traces the course of mummy investigations from the "unrollings" of the 18th and 19th centuries down to the landmark studies of the 20th century, contrasting museum-based studies on individual or small groups of mummies with those now possible in the field—thanks to advances in the quality of portable equipment—that can promote a statistical and paleodemographic approach.

Chapter 11 provides a basic survey of methods currently available to investigate mummies; although this includes a discussion of aDNA techniques, it surprisingly omits other important and recently introduced diagnostic tools such as ELISA and immunocytochemistry (and these references are not included in the bibliography). Chapters 12 and 13 contrast the advantages and disadvantages of undertaking investigations on mummies in museums (where problems include the frequent absence of precise data about the provenance, identity, and date of the mummies) and at excavation sites (where the provenance is guaranteed but only a limited range of techniques can be used). In each case, a useful and interesting summary is included of major projects in both these contexts. Chapter 14 assesses the contribution that scientific investigations of human and animal mummies have made to anthropology, paleodemography, research on religious beliefs and ritual, and the environment and fauna of ancient Egypt.

There is a useful appendix of royal and important other mummies, and a glossary of Egyptological and medical terms. The bibliography has been updated for this edition, although there are a few surprising omissions. The extensive line drawings and monochrome photographs, although variable in quality, make a significant contribution because many of them introduce the reader to new material, and they are accompanied by detailed and informative captions. This book provides an accurate and well-balanced introduction for students and those with a general interest in Egyptology and paleopathology; a particular strength of the publication is that it disseminates information about the authors' special research to a wider readership.

Rosalie David
KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology
University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL
United Kingdom
rosalie.david@manchester.ac.uk

DOI: 
10.3764/ajaonline1132.David

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Use [fn]...[/fn] (or <fn>...</fn>) to insert automatically numbered footnotes.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.