Did we get Egyptian mummification completely wrong? It may have nothing to do with the preservation of the body after death, experts say.

A golden mummy mask from Hawara, part of the Manchester Museum collection.Museum of Manchester/Julia Thorne

  • The Egyptians may not have used mummification at all to preserve the body, some scientists say.

  • They might have wanted to turn the royal remains into divine statues: Preservation was a boon, they said.

  • The Victorians may have unduly focused on conservation because of their views.

Mummification may never have been intended to preserve the bodies of Ancient Egyptians after death, experts said, in stark contrast to popular understanding of the practice.

A growing number of archaeologists have argued that the conservative effects of mummification were likely accidental, and blame early modern Egyptologists for propagating a misconception based on little evidence.

Instead, according to the theory, mummification was meant to alter bodies in a way that didn’t rely on the popular theory that bodies would be reanimated in the afterlife.

Instead, experts said, the Egyptians intended to turn their pharaohs into statues, works of art with religious significance.

Egyptologists promoting this view say the Victorians who first studied the mummies concluded the goal was preservation because of their macabre fascination with the afterlife.

The approach suggested that Egyptians believed that kings and queens were living deities and that turning their bodies into statues after death was a way to restore their rightful form.

The gold masks found in the sarcophagi of royalty would therefore be idealized, divine versions of the deceased rather than lifelike portraits, these Egyptologists said.

A cartonnage, part of the Manchester Museum exhibition.

A cartonnage, part of the Manchester Museum exhibition.Museum of Manchester/Julia Thorne

“It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one,” said Campbell Price, curator at the Manchester Museum in the UK.

“This idea that the spirit returns to the body, or in a sense animates it, is not as explicitly articulated as you might imagine,” Price said in an interview with Insider.

Manchester Museum will explore this approach in the forthcoming ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’ exhibition, opening in February. Price wrote an accompanying book.

An image of the golden mummies of Egypt is shown.

An image of the golden mummies of Egypt is shown.Manchester Museum

One of the arguments in support of this theory is that the mummies of some of the prominent ruling classes don’t seem very interested in conservation.

King Tutankhamun’s body, for example, was found stuck to the bottom of his coffin.

“It’s almost as if, reading modern accounts, the mummification failed, the ancient Egyptians didn’t know what they were doing, and therefore it’s not well preserved,” Price said.

According to the alternative theory, “producing a realistic image, a recognizable image, was actually never the intention in the first place,” Price said

An ancient drawing of Osiris and Isis is shown.

An ancient drawing of Osiris and Isis is shown.Museum of Manchester/Julia Thorne

The ancient Egyptians saw the statues as divine.

“There seems to be the world of the living and of people going about their daily lives. And then there is the world of images and representations, of statues and reliefs and paintings. This is not just an idealized version of the Egypt, it’s an image of divinity, a kind of statuary world,” Price said.

The archaeological record suggests that the ancient Egyptians anointed statues of the gods with oils and perfumes. They also sometimes wrapped them in sheets, so the bandages were thought to bestow some kind of divinity.

By placing organs in canopic jars — jars decorated with the heads of gods — during the embalming process, the Egyptians may have intended to infuse them with the divine spirit of the deceased royal, Price said, rather than keep them on hand for the afterlife.

King Tutankhamun's mask, which was found damaged and glued back together, can be seen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

King Tutankhamun’s mask, which was found damaged and glued back together, can be seen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.Reuters

However, not everyone agrees that the conservation aspect of mummification should be abandoned.

“The physical preservation of the body was extremely important. There’s no doubt about it,” Stephen Buckley, an archaeologist and analytical chemist at the University of York, told Insider.

Some mummies actually look like statues, like Tutankhamun, Amenhotep III and Akhenaten.

But others, Buckley said, such as Thutmose III, Thutmose IV, Amenhotep II and Queen Tiye have been mummified to look more “sleeping,” suggesting greater concern for the physical body within.

The images included some imperfections, “perhaps so that the soul could recognize itself and thus have a ‘home’ to return to periodically,” she said.

Buckley admitted that mummification wasn’t just about conservation, but said ignoring it completely would be “missing the point.”

The sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun in 1922. The photo also shows Egyptologist Howard Carter, at left, with an unidentified man.

The sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun in 1922. The photo also shows Egyptologist Howard Carter, at left, with an unidentified man.Apic/Getty Images

But if Price is right, then how did we get so wrong?

It could be down to the Victorians and their ideas about life after death.

“A lot of what we say when we describe Ancient Egypt is less about what actually happened in Ancient Egypt and more about the assumptions of white, cisgender, bearded men of the Victorian upper middle class,” Price said.

“How often those interpretations stuck and were repeated and repeated and repeated,” Price said.

“I think there’s a lot of not thinking to do.”

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