Jan 06, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Egyptian Mummy Mistake - They're Supposed to be Statues of Gods, Not Preserved Humans

Egypt’s national football team is known as "the Pharaohs", but ask most people outside of that country what the team’s mascot might be – or Egypt's national nickname, for that matter – and the most common guess would no doubt be “The Mummies.” Nothing is associated more with Egypt across all categories than preserved human remains in large painted wooden coffins placed in elaborate tombs than the mummy. As a result – especially because so many of the mummies are the bodies of ancient Egyptian leaders – these mummies have been meticulously studied and often desecrated or destroyed in the process. That is why some recent news has the Egyptology world turned upside down – new research has found that archeologists and historians are wrong about the purpose of mummification in ancient Egypt – it was not to preserve bodies after death. Then, what was the purpose and how does this affect Egyptian history and Egyptology … not to mention mummy movies?

I didn't look like this?

"It's a subtle distinction, but it's an important one. This idea that the spirit returns to the body, or in some sense animates the body, is not as explicitly articulated as you might imagine."

In a recent interview with Business Insider, Campbell Price, the new Chair of Trustees at the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) (the UK’s leading charity supporting archaeological fieldwork and research in Egypt) and a curator at the Manchester Museum in the UK, revealed the startling news Egyptologists, himself included, may have been misunderstanding the purpose of mummification all the way back to Victorian times and the heyday of tomb discoveries, artifact recoveries, raids and looting. In a brand new Exhibition Hall, the Golden Mummies of Egypt exhibition opening in February attempts to set the record straight. In the interview, Price tells Business Insider that he and other Egyptologists began to question the whole mummification-as-preservation idea while studying perhaps the most famous Egyptian mummy – that of King Tutankhamun. If his followers wanted the Boy King’s spirit to have a body to occupy for all of eternity, why was it so poorly mummified that it was found stuck to the bottom of his coffin? (Pause for “Ewwww!” here.)

"It's almost as if, to read modern accounts, the mummification was botched, the ancient Egyptians didn't know what they were doing, and thus he wasn't well preserved."

Botch the final preservation of a pharaoh? That sounds so un-Egyptian, doesn’t it? Campell and other Egyptologists agreed. There must have been another reason that King Tut ended up in such an un-pharaoh-like state. The first "ah-ha!" moment for Price and other Egyptologists came not from the mummies, but from those people who found many of them. As Price describes them, they were “Victorian upper-middle-class white, cisgender, bearded men." They were also men who had Victorian ideas about death, burials and the afterlife – and those ideas influenced their interpretations of what Egyptians nearly five thousand years before were doing when they drained the fluids, removed the organs, dehydrated the body, coated it with resin and placed it in a wooden coffin that was often painted with a portrait of the person. Was it really a portrait? Or was it an honorific interpretation like a statue?

“We have to imagine a time when, not only were there obviously no photographic images, but also very few mirrors, so people didn’t know what they looked like. The whole question of individual facial features was not so important. The ideas behind ancient portraiture and statuary were also very different as a result.”

Perhaps our ideas of handsome or beautiful (in the case of the Cleopatras) pharaohs vainly obsessed with their looks is another modern idea wrongly applied to the mummies. In The Guardian, Price presents the idea that the idea of mummification, at least for the royals and their families, was to turn them into godly statues … or even works of art. The statue idea is definitely worth considering … although not in the way some cultures worship statues as idols. The ancient Egyptians looked at statues as delivery devices – they would bring offerings to the gods and even anointing the statues with oils and covering them with cloths - and their message would be channeled to the god through the statue. Since the ancient Egyptians considered their kings and queen to be living gods, what better way to show that they are gods and keep in contact with them after they died that to turn their bodies into statues?

“The golden masks found in the sarcophagi of royals would then be idealized, god-like versions of the deceased rather than lifelike portraits.”

According to Price, it was not important for the mummy to keep the likeness of the pharaoh forever – that is what the gold masks and paintings on the coffins and even some  sarcophagi were for. Business Insider notes that some prominent ruling classes didn’t even bother with mummifying the bodies because the masks served the purpose of preserving their godliness. That might also explain the elaborate decorations found in some tombs.

“And then there's the world of images and representation, statues, reliefs, and paintings. That is not just an idealized version of Egypt — it's an image of gods, a kind of a statue world."

Jars of organs found in Egyptian tombs may have been statues too.

In fact, the idea of removing bodily organs and placing them in jars may not have been to keep them ready for the afterlife – the jars were statues filled with the godliness of the organ donor. Price admits that many Egyptologists reject this idea of mummies as statues – old beliefs die hard, especially when the alternative is so contrary to the modern ideas of embalming and wakes. To help support this new theory, and to help visitors remember that mummies are human remains, the eight mummies in the Golden Mummies of Egypt exhibit will not be accompanied by CT scans or any facial recognition imagery. In other words, they will be the statues their families, followers and mummy makers intended them to be.

Does this change everything about mummies? Probably not yet. However, it could push modern Egyptologists away from the current obsession of using the technology of CT scans and facial recognition to recreate the images of mummies and instead focus on learning more about their lives, practices and beliefs. After all, we could use a few less mummy horror movies.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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