Ancient Egyptian mummies have been an object of fascination. The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century B.C., visited Egypt and wrote a description of the mummification process. Since no ancient Egyptian text survives, his account forms the basis of many descriptions in modern books and museum displays.
Now a new study by two Canadian scientists suggests Herodotus may have gotten it wrong.
Yahoo News reports that two of the key points in Herodotus’ account – that the internal organs were dissolved with cedar oil enemas and the heart was always left in place – don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Researchers have examined studies of 150 mummies and put seven through CT scans and found little evidence of cedar oil. Also, in three-quarters of the mummies the heart was missing.
Herodotus also said that the brains were removed with a hook pushed through the nose. The study shows brains in about a fifth of mummies.
So why did Herodotus get it wrong? The study’s coauthor Andrew Wade of the University of Western Ontario says mummification was a lucrative business and its secrets closely guarded. In other words, Herodotus was handed a line. Imagine a bunch of mummy makers drinking wine by the Nile after a busy day at the office and laughing about that clueless Greek who showed up asking questions. “Cedar oil enemas? Yeah, save that for the tourists!”
Another possibility is that the mummy makers cut corners. In many animal mummies, used as offerings to the gods, researchers found only partial skeletons or wrappings that contained nothing. Temples made lots of money selling animal mummies to the faithful, and they created fakes to increase profits.
The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University has a longer account of Herodotus’ writings on mummification here. The study was published in the latest issue of HOMO: The Journal of Comparative Human Biology.
[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]