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.

  • Their purpose may have been to transform royal remains into divine statues: Preservation was a boon, they say.

  • Victorians can unduly focus on conservation due to their own views, spreading misconceptions.

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

A growing number of archaeologists say 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 say, 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 suggests that the 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, god-like versions of the deceased rather than realistic portraits, these Egyptologists say.

On this cartonnage is seen a gilded figure of a woman with long dark hair, intricately decorated with Egyptian designs.

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

“It’s a subtle but important distinction,” according to 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.

The approach is being explored in the upcoming ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’ exhibition, which opens at the Manchester Museum in February. Price wrote an accompanying book.

A snapshot of the exhibition is shown.  An image of a guild mask is shown in the foreground.

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, he argues, “producing a realistic image, a recognizable image, was actually never the intention in the first place,” Price said

A drawing on cracked cardboard shows an ancient drawing of the winged god Osiris and his wife Isis.

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

The statues were viewed by the ancient Egyptians as deities.

“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 statues of the gods were anointed with oils and perfumes. They were also sometimes wrapped in sheets, so the bandages were thought to bestow a kind of divinity.

By placing organs in canopic jars (jars adorned 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, according to Price, rather than keeping them on hand for the afterlife.

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King Tutankhamun’s mask, which was found damaged and glued together, is seen at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo on January 24, 2015.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 Tuthmosis III, Tuthmosis IV, Amenhotep II and Queen Tyi 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.”

A black and white photo shows two men crouched over King Tut's open sarcophagus.

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, cis-gendered, upper-middle-class Victorian bearded men,” 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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