Death and taxes are famously inevitable,but what about decomposition?
As anyone who’s seen a mummy knows,
ancient Egyptians went to a lot of troubleto evade decomposition. So,
how successful were they?
Living cells constantly renew themselves.
Specialized enzymesdecompose old structures,
and the raw materialsare used to build new ones.
But what happens when someone dies?
Their dead cells are no longerable to renew themselves,
but the enzymeskeep breaking everything down.
So anyone looking to preserve a body
needed to get ahead of those enzymes before the tissues began to rot.
Neurons die quickly,
so brains were a lost causeto Ancient Egyptian mummifiers,
which is why, accordingto Greek historian Herodotus,
they started the processby hammering a spike into the skull,
mashing up the brain,flushing it out the nose
and pouring tree resins into the skullto prevent further decomposition.
Brains may decay first,but decaying guts are much worse.
The liver, stomach and intestinescontain digestive enzymes and bacteria, which,
upon death, start eatingthe corpse from the inside.
So the priests removed the lungsand abdominal organs first.
It was difficult to remove the lungswithout damaging the heart,
but because the heart was believed to be the seat of the soul,
they treated it with special care.
They placed the visceral organs in jars
filled with a naturally occurring saltcalled natron.
Like any salt, natron can prevent decayby killing bacteria
and preventing the body’s naturaldigestive enzymes from working.
But natron isn’t just any salt.
It’s mainly a mixtureof two alkaline salts,
soda ash and baking soda.
Alkaline salts are especiallydeadly to bacteria.
And they can turn fatty membranesinto a hard, soapy substance,
thereby maintainingthe corpse’s structure.
After dealing with the internal organs,
the priest stuffed the body cavitywith sacks of more natron
and washed it clean to disinfect the skin. Then,
the corpse was set in a bed of still more natron
for about 35 daysto preserve its outer flesh.
By the time of its removal,
the alkaline salts had sucked the fluid from the body
and formed hard brown clumps.
The corpse wasn’t putrid,
but it didn’t exactly smell good, either. So,
priests poured tree resin overthe body to seal it,
massaged it with a waxy mixturethat included cedar oil,
and then wrapped it in linen. Finally,
they placed the mummyin a series of nested coffins
and sometimes even a stone sarcophagus.
So how successful werethe ancient Egyptians at evading decay?
On one hand, mummies are definitely notintact human bodies.
Their brains have been mashed upand flushed out,
their organs have been removedand salted like salami,
and about half of their remaining body mass has been drained away. Still,
what remainsis amazingly well-preserved.
Even after thousands of years, scientists can perform autopsieson mummies
to determine their causes of death,
and possibly even isolate DNA samples.
This has given us new information.
For example, it seems
that air pollution was a serious problem in ancient Egypt,
probably because of indoor firesused to bake bread.
Cardiovascular disease was also common,as was tuberculosis.
So ancient Egyptians were somewhatsuccessful at evading decay. Still,
like death, taxes are inevitable.
When some mummies were transported,they were taxed as salted fish.