New research alludes to the ‘brutal’ side of mummification in Ancient Egypt


Our popular notion of Egyptian mummification being a completely delicate process takes a backseat with a new assessment (and its debate) that is put forth at the International Congress of Egyptologists in Florence. Now, while mummification did entail steps like removal of the subject’s brain and internal organs, these procedures were achieved with precision and practice. However, before the final wrapping took place, the embalmers seemingly forced opened the deceased’s mouth with sharp instruments like knives and chisel – thus in the process breaking and dislocating the corpse’s teeth.

This apparent violent mode relates to the ritual of ‘opening of the mouth’. However, previously, this ritual was seen as a tepid (and rather innocuous) ceremony where the embalmers only touched the mouth with specific objects, and these actions were then complemented by a range of incantations and even recitation of particular formulas. Historians noted how the Ancient Egyptian beliefs corresponded to such symbolic scopes. To that end, all of these ritualistic practices were probably done only to restore the deceased’s sentience, so that its soul can ‘properly’ function in the afterlife.

But now, researchers have potentially discovered more than what the symbolic part of ‘opening of the mouth’ ceremony suggests. According to mummy expert Frank Rühli (who is also the director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich), there was a dark side to the ritual – during which the deceased’s mouth was forcibly opened. As he mentioned –

Fractures and avulsions of front teeth, which were up to now not sufficiently taken into consideration, are the first evidence for a real physical opening of the mouth procedure during mummification.

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His conclusion is derived from extant evidences found in the investigation of 51 mummies salvaged from the Swiss Mummy project. Rühli (along with dentist Roger Seiler) also studied around 100 skull specimens, and their collective analysis showed how many of these mummies exhibited postmortem trauma to their mouths and teeth. Furthermore, CT scans conformed to such after-death injuries, with some cases even showing how the broken teeth were shoved down the throat region.

Lastly, the researchers also assessed literary sources, namely the papyri containing details about the mummification of the Apis bull – which pertained to the embalming of nobles. The extant document mentions how the priests had to force-open the jaws of the deceased, and then pushed their hand to its physical limit (as far as it could go). Their task was to both clean the oral cavity and then ‘anoint’ the region with oil and resins. From the practical perspective, during such unpleasant maneuvering, it was quite possible to cause teeth fractures and dislocations inside the mouth area.


The study was originally published in the The Anatomical Record journal.

Source: Discovery News

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