Mummies of the World, Part II

One of the fallen at Pompeii.

One of the fallen at Pompeii.

I’m not sure what it says that this mummy article is so detailed that it takes two posts. Perhaps I am a bit obsessed with decayed (yet preserved!) humans? Well, never mind…

Here’s the story of my continued fascination with mummies, including an inside look at the preserved being of Pompeii and the quintessential Egyptian mummy:

Fallen People of Pompeii

I’ve been to Italy several times, but this was the first time I had been to Pompeii and I was really excited! Of course we all know the city of Pompeii was buried for nearly 1,700 years under the ash of the mighty (and still active) volcano Vesuvius.

And while the buried buildings of Pompeii give us great insight into the world of Pax Romana, the real attraction are the people of ancient Pompeii who were frozen in time as they ran from the suffocating ash. Apparently, the asphyxia suffered by the fallen humans helped to stiffen their bodies in their last moments of life, helping to preserve Vesuvius’ victims.

Dog buried in Pompeii

Dog buried in Pompeii

Excavators made casts of these fallen humans by pouring liquid plaster into the hollows left by the layers of ash. In this way, their hands and faces retained vestiges of their last moment of life. Gruesome!

As I mentioned, I was interested to see these forms and to better envision the story of their tragedy. When I actually got to view the bodies, however, there were only 3 bodies on display: an adult, a child, and a dog. I remember being slightly disappointed by the paucity of exhibit. (I’m not exactly sure what I wanted…more death?)

In addition, the ash forms were displayed in the middle of a room in glass boxes. Again, I’m not entirely sure why this was unsatisfactory to me, but I wanted a closer or somehow more authentic viewing experience.

Should you go to Pompeii to view the human destruction caused by Vesuvius? Yes, but temper your expectations.

Egyptian Embalming

When one thinks of mummies, the immediate image is the ancient Egyptian mummies, wrapped in pampas cloth and arms crossed in front of their chest. The definition of the word “mummy” was originally used to refer to bodies that have been preserved due to an artificial chemical process. And it doesn’t refer to just human bodies, as there’s been an estimated 6,000 animal bodies that have been mummified in Egypt (mainly cats).

An Egyptian mummy at the Cairo Museum

An Egyptian mummy at the Cairo Museum

According to scientific findings, these masterful embalmers used salts to remove moisture from the body and helped speed up the dehydration process (thus preventing decomposition). Once dried, the mummified bodies were anointed with sacred oils and perfumes.

The bodies were then wrapped with strips of white linen and a larger sheet of canvas to protect the bodies from damage. Oftentimes finger and toe-nail protectors were used to prevent breakage. Mummies are most often found accompanied by sacred charms and amulets thought to help preserve the deceased’s spirit.

Mummy #32751

Artificial or “intentional” mummification was first discovered in Egypt and dates back to 3500 B.C. These truly ancient beings were preserved using a type of resin and linen wrappings. The oldest intact mummy dates from 3400 B.C. and lives in the British Museum.

It is an adult male of unknown age whom met an uncertain death. (He was originally referred to as “Ginger” because of his hair color, but this affectionate nickname has been stopped to afford the corpse more respect.) But, here’s the crux of my fascination – I mean, you can still see the color of this man’s hair after a millennium!

Egyptian Mummies in British Museum

Egyptian Mummies in British Museum

On my last trip to London, I stopped by the British Museum (one of the best in the world in my opinion) and visited the mummies in residence. There were several mummies on display in glass cases and you could get close enough to peer closely. It was a very satisfactory experience.

Mummies at their Best

My best—most authentic—mummy experience was in the Cairo Museum (as it should be). Now, a visit to the Cairo Museum is like visiting your uncle’s junk yard, with dusty, leaning artifacts piled in corners. (It is actually like this and it’s heart-breaking to see such treasures literally stacked on top of one another).

I spent hours and hours in the museum and paid (somewhat reluctantly) an additional fee to visit The Mummy Room. But boy was it worth the price of admission!

Here in The Mummy Room were 20 ancient mummies that were extraordinarily well-preserved! It was amazing to see each individual hair, fingers nails and toe nails. You could discern facial forms and folded limbs – truly magnificent representations of preserving human life for as long as possible.

egyptian-mummy phot by sparklette.netThe special exhibit included men, women and children, priests and nobility. I think the fact that there were relatively few people in the viewing area enhanced the experience, as you could linger and spend as much time as you wanted in the presence of the preserved.

This was the mummy experience I measure all others against! So if you go to Egypt, plan at least one afternoon at the Cairo Museum, and don’t hesitate to pay the surplus fee for entry into the mummy zone. It will stay with you (haunt you?) for the rest of your life!

Interested in more articles about my time in Egypt? Check out:

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This entry was posted on Sunday, March 3rd, 2013 and is filed under Travel Favorites.

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