Removing the Brain and Entrails for Mummification Nov 15, 2013 2:28:20 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Nov 15, 2013 2:28:20 GMT -5
How Ancient Embalmers Pulled the Brains and Guts Out of Mummies
Numerous mummies have been found in Egyptian tombs with the oldest dating to 3500 BC, but one thing has remained a bit of a mystery: what does the mummification process actually involve from a surgical point of view? How were the brains, guts and other vital organs removed? What tools were used to remove them and were people trained for this purpose? One anthropologist thinks he’s found the answers.
Much like a 46-million-year-old mosquito fossilized mid-meal, Egyptian mummification has long provided embalmed snapshots of an ancient way of life. Just last week, we learned why King Tut’s mummy had not been preserved in the most kingly fashion: his body seemingly experienced ignition inside its sarcophagus because of a flammable cocktail of oxygen, embalming oils and combustible linens.
One myth of mummy-making has long appealed to our gross sensibilities: mushy brain parts were usually removed from Egyptian mummies and flushed out through the nose, we’ve been told. And that’s not all: more often than not, they were disemboweled and rid of their internal organs as well, to retard decomposition.
In a paper published in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, Dr. Andrew Wade at the University of Western Ontario investigated the literal ins and outs of organ-removal techniques. Wade looked at films and forensic scans from a sample of 50 human Egyptian mummies, noting there were two main methods of both excerebration (brain removal) and evisceration (body organ removal). Occurrences of brain and organ removal actually increased over time as mummification was expanded to non-royals. As Wade explained in an email, methods of brain removal were precise and step-by-step:
In the first, which we see lots of, the brain is removed through a hole made by inserting a metal rod up the nose and breaking through to the braincase. In the second, for which we only have unconfirmed anecdotal evidence, the brain is removed by making an incision in the back of the neck and removing it through the hole in the base of the skull where the spinal cord exits the skull.
The former technique, known as transnasal craniotomy (TNC), is the one we’ve heard the most about because it’s widely supported by tangible evidence. It is interesting to note, however, that the Egyptians confused the function of the brain with that of the heart, believing the latter was the center of emotion, thought and personality – which explains why they disposed of the brain, believing it would be of no use in the afterlife.
For years, the widely-held belief was that excerebration was conducted with a hook pushed up the nose into the cranial cavity. Greek historian Herodotus is largely to blame for this, as his fifth century BC account of Egyptian mummification indicated that embalmers “take first a crooked piece of iron, and with it draw out the brain through the nostrils, thus getting rid of a portion, while the skull is cleared of the rest by rinsing with drugs.”
His theory has since been dispelled by the discovery of brain-removal tools that were left inside the skulls of two mummies, both of which were organic sticks that are believed to have liquefied parts of the brain and removed other sections. According to Wade, most researchers now agree the Egyptians “broke through the bone with a tool like the hook, used some sort of tool to blend up the brain, and then either allowed it to drain out the nose or flushed it out with water or palm wine or something to that effect.” This being said, Wade found that the brain did sometimes remain in the skull, mummified along with the body, although the evidence doesn’t suggest a clear pattern of occurrence.
Evisceration, on the other hand, expelled organs the Egyptians wanted to preserve, usually in one of two ways:
In the first, the best known, the organs are removed through a slit in the left side of the abdomen. In the second, and less frequent method, the organs were removed through the anus, vagina or a combination of the two. Because it’s difficult to clearly identify the route (the legs are wrapped pressed together, so there’s lots of skin folds and resin pooled here) we looked at these together as evisceration through the perineal area.
Yet again, Herodotus’s account was a bit off-base: he claimed penny-pinchers could get a quickie evisceration with just a cedar oil enema, a toxic brew that “brings with it the whole stomach and intestines in a liquid state.” Wade’s findings didn’t indicate extensive proof of cedar oil use – instead, they suggested social status played a role: transperineal evisceration was employed only during mummification of noble women.
Because the Egyptians placed great value on a comfortable afterlife, they believed one would need access to certain key organs. So, post-evisceration, the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines were dried and stored in four canopic jars that were kept with the body. As per mummy law, the heart was supposed to remain inside the body, considered integral to an Egyptian’s success in the afterlife. But this wasn’t always the case, Wade explained:
As for the removal of the heart, it is my feeling that this important organ was being intentionally removed from commoner mummies in order to ensure that the elite would save a more favorable afterlife for themselves. The data from my studies and from others support the preferential retention of that important organ (the organ of emotion and intelligence) in elites and its absence in commoners ... So, the commoners having their hearts removed may simply not have known that their mummies weren’t going to keep their hearts, while the elites could retain all of their faculties and enjoy the afterlife as they did their life.
Tough break for the commoners, I’d say, although it wasn’t uncommon, after all (pardon the pun). Some rituals were simply reserved for the elite. A snippet from a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead elucidates this further: “As for any noble dead for whom this ritual is performed over his coffin, there shall be opened for him four openings in the sky ... As for each one of these winds which is in its opening, its task is to enter into his nose. No outsider knows, for it is a secret which the common folk do not yet know; you shall not perform it over anyone, not your father or your son, except yourself alone. It is truly a secret, which no-one of the people should know.”
Source: Pavithra Mohan, Gizmodo, November 13, 2013.