The Egyptian way of death: c.3200-1350 BC

An Egyptian dies, more than 5000 years ago. He is buried in the hot desert sand. Buried with him are several pots, to carry food and drink in the next world, and some useful tools - three large blades of flint. They are relatively simple. He has been a man of only moderate means. Unearthed at Naqada in the late 19th century, he is now in the British Museum and is popularly known as 'Ginger'.

In Egyptian belief it is essential that the body be preserved, because life in the next world will be much the same as here. And the hot sand preserves skin and bones almost miraculously - by extracting the moisture, without which bacterial decay is impossible. As a result this anonymous Egyptian is one of the earliest human beings to have survived in anything approaching recognizable form.

The benefits of the dry desert sand are lost when royal and noble Egyptians begin to be buried in more impressive style - in the brick tombs known as Mastabas. The tombs will become more lavish over the centuries, with the bodies of pharaohs being placed at the centre of vast pyramids. And they will become more secret; from about 1500 BC the rulers are buried in rock tombs, excavated in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings at Thebes and then sealed and camouflaged in an attempt to frustrate the grave robbers.

But the air circulating in any of these burial chambers will enable bacteria to go about their destructive business. To prevent this, from around 2500 BC, the Egyptians develop the science of mummification.

The ritual of embalming: from about 2500 BC

Seventy days, under the supervision of the temple priests, is the ritual period in ancient Egypt for embalming and wrapping a corpse. The embalming agent (a naturally occuring sodium carbonate called natron) is continually applied to any exposed parts of the corpse.

The first surgical task is to empty the skull without disfiguring the head. This is achieved by pushing a pointed instrument up through a nostril to create a cavity, and then laboriously extracting the brain with a scoop. The entrails are next. An incision is made, always on the left side of the body. The stomach and intestines are removed. The lungs and liver are taken too. But it is essential that the heart is left.

The internal organs, after being dried out with natron, accompany the corpse into the tomb. They are placed in four separate containers known as canopic jars - each usually looking like a small mummy with the head as a stopper. One jar is intended for the liver, one for the lungs, one for the stomach and one for the intestines. From the time of the New kingdom, in the 16th century BC, the lids of canopic jars usually depict the four sons of Horus as guardians of the contents.

After the corpse has been thoroughly dried out, and its internal cavities stuffed with various mixtures of linen, sawdust and natron crystals, the last fifteen of the seventy days are devoted to wrapping it. As in modern funeral parlours, make-up is applied to the face. And favourite jewellery is worn.

Each mummy, if given the full treatment, requires at least 350 square metres of linen; so the wrapping process is elaborate. But the linen is only the first stage in covering the body. A funeral mask is placed over the head. In the case of a king, as with Tutankhamen, it may be of solid gold. In Roman Egypt, in the mummies from Fayyum, the mask is an extremely realistic painted portrait.

The mummy is now ready for its coffin. For protection there is often an inner and an outer coffin. In later centuries these are carved in the shape of the body and are elaborately painted, providing the image of a mummy most familiar today.

Animal mummies

Not only humans are mummified. Many animals in ancient Egypt are sacred, including two species which frequent temples - ibises and cats. The expensive process of mummification is not considered too good for these creatures. Indeed the opportunity to pay for a mummified ibis or cat may well be a convenient way to extract money from pilgrims.

The number of mummified ibises found at Saqqara is estimated to be about four million. So many mummified cats were discovered in Egypt in the 19th century that large quantities were shipped to Liverpool as fertilizer.

A Greek view: 450 BC

A Greek author, Herodotus, visits Egypt in about 450 BC and leaves an eye-witness account of the process of mummification. He says that three levels of service are offered. The one described here has been the most expensive. By contrast the body of a poor man or woman goes back to the family, after the seventy days, as nothing more than a naked dried out corpse.

The Greek visitor describes in a reasonably balanced tone the strange sights he has seen, but he cannot resist repeating, at the end, a scurrilous rumour to be enjoyed by foreigners.