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In the Afterlife

Amulet of Harpocrates
© BA Antiquities Museum/H. Mady Hassan Mady

Presentation of the department

The Ancient Egyptians believed in a further and eternal life following death. This was, without any doubt, because of their observation for some natural phenomena. The Nile and the sun cycles, and the myth of Osiris inspired them with the idea of the resurrection. Accordingly, the Egyptians were keen on the preservation of the bodies of their deceased, and on the preparation of their tombs which they equipped with the funerary furniture the deceased would need for this journey. These beliefs continued to exist during the Hellenistic and Roman Periods.
The Artifacts displayed “In the Afterlife” hall offer glimpses of the funerary beliefs in the Ancient Egyptian, Hellenistic and Roman eras. 

The Eternal Life

The Ancient Egyptians believed in a further and eternal life following death. This was without any doubt because of their observation for some natural phenomena. The Nile and the Sun cycles, and the myth of Osiris inspired them with the idea of the resurrection. According to them, the Sun sets (dies) in the western horizon to rise (reborn) the next morning. The Nile flood occurs in the same time every year to inundate the dead (dry) land and make it alive suitable for cultivation. Following the harvest season, it dies (dries) once more until the next year. It is also believed that dreams had played a certain part in their beliefs. When people saw their deceased relatives in the their dreams, they must have thought that these deceased persons were still alive somewhere in the beyond.

The Mummification process

It is well known that the graves of the Predynastic and the Early Dynastic periods, were shallow oval pits in which the deceased bodies used to be buried in a crouched or foetal position, the heads pointed south with the face towards the setting sun. When these bodies were unprotected from the surrounding sand, a process of swift natural desiccation took place, the decomposition fluids were leached into the sand, and the skin, hair, tendons and ligaments rapidly dried; internally, connective tissue and the larger organs were preserved. This natural mummification, which was observed by Egyptians, was elaborated with the development of the civilization. 
It seems that early in the First Dynasty, the Egyptians sought to achieve, by artificial means, some semblance of preservation of the body which had previously been possible in the sand graves. According to the evidences that were gathered from the Old Kingdom tombs, we may say that the embalming technique in that period was merely to wrap the body with many layers of linen bandages which were impregnated with resin. This method of wrapping the body continued to be used, with some modification, until the New Kingdom, when the mummification process had reached its final stage of perfection.

Mummification in the New Kingdom

Shortly after death, the corpse was brought to the Waabt or the workshop where it was laid on the embalming stone table. Then the ethmoid bone was broken and decomposed, softened brain was teased through the nostril by using a metal hook. In fact, we do not know why such trouble was taken to extract the brain if there was no attempt to preserve it. We know, however, that the cranial cavity was afterwards filled with a thick layer of the bitumen; perhaps to inhibit the micro-organisms to pass through the bones of the skull. The cavity was afterwards stuffed with resin or linen soaked in resin.
The viscera were removed through an incision made on the left side of the lower abdomen. The internal organs were washed and soaked separately in natron, then treated with hot resin, bandaged, and packed in four canopic jars. The lids of these jars were shaped as the four sons of Horus: Imsty who was human-headed, to guard the liver; Hapy, ape-headed, guarded the lungs; Dua mwt.f, jackal-headed, guarded the stomach; and  Qebeh senw.ef, falcon-headed, protected the intestines.
The body and the emptied chest cavity were washed with palm wine and spices. (Palm wine, as manufactured in Ancient Egypt, usually contained about 14% ethyl alcohol.)
During 40 days, the corpse was buried in heaps of dry natron, renewed several times. As the natron usually acted as a  dehydrating agent and assisted in the breakdown of fatty tissues, the thoracic and abdominal cavities were packed three consecutive times with temporary stuffing materials enclosed in a piece of linen containing dry natron to accelerate the dehydration of the body tissues from inside. This was the main operation of the mummification process that depends scientifically on the extraction of the moisture out of the body by the osmosis pressure.
The corpse was then taken out of the natron, and the temporary stuffing materials removed from the thoracic and abdominal cavities because they would have become saturated and would have caused the putrefaction of the corpse if left within it.
The corpse was most probably brought to the Pr-nfr where it was washed and purified with the Nile water. This operation would have been the most important rite within the ritual which accompanied and controlled the timing of the physical preparation. The Nile water used was imbued with magic significance, within the cycle of myths connected with the rising (the rebirth) of sun from the river and the subsidence of the inundation. This might remind us with Heliopolitan image of the sun emerging, freshly bathed in the waters of the Nile. It recalls also the apparent spontaneous generation of life as the land emerged yearly on the water of the flood.
The body was anointed with cedar oil and other precious ointments and then rubbed with myrrh, cinnamon and other fragrant substances to return some of the original elasticity to the skin.
The body was smeared with molten resin to protect it from any further damage caused by insects, bacteria, or other external factors.
The mummy was wrapped with linen bandages, between which a rolled funerary papyrus was sometimes inserted, and adorned with jewels and amulets placed within the bandages and on the shrouds. Finally, garlands of flowers and green leaves were placed over the shroud before the body was laid in its coffin.
Before the burial, a priest performed on the mummy the rite of Opening the Mouth, to restore to the deceased person all his facilities, in order that he might see with his eyes, hear with his ears, speak with his mouth, breathe with his nose, and move his arms and legs. At the same time, the priest recited prayers while the family wailed for their beloved.

Mummification During the Hellenistic and Roman Periods

Mummification practices suffered their ultimate decline during the end of the Ancient Egyptian period until modern times. They came to an end during the Byzantine era. AlthoughGreco-Roman mummies are less well cured than those of preceding eras, they are far more splendidly wrapped, often in bandages that formed lozenge patterns, in which each lozenge was centered over a gold spot, with a portrait-mask painted on a wooden panel covering the face.
During the Ptolemaic Period both traditional evisceration methods (through the left flank and the anus) were used. A typical feature of late Ptolemaic and early Roman mummification is the heavy use of liquid resin both inside the body cavity as well as on the surface.
Many mummies of the third and fourth centuries CE show that the bodies were neither eviscerated nor de-brained; instead, they were thickly covered with resin.
An important innovation of the early Roman Period was gilding the mummy. Fingers, toes, eye-lids, lips, hands, feet, genitals, and on occasion the entire body, were covered with a fine layer of gold.
In the Greco-Roman period some embalmers, especially in Nubia, continued to attempt to care for their creations: If a mummy’s head got disconnected from its torso, it was reconnected using a stick; similarly a child’s body had a stick passed through its entire length to strengthen it. Some Roman mummies from Giza had reeds placed between layers of wrapping to keep the mummy stiff. This provided mummies with additional protection if they were buried without a coffin, as was the case with many during these periods.

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