Egypt in South Africa


Grave robbing was already happening before the construction of the majestic pyramids and this exposed some of the bodies buried in cemeteries.
The first graves were just shallow pits in the sand with a few grave goods. When these pits were opened, the ancient Egyptians discovered the natural drying-out (desiccation) process. This process had taken place when bodies were buried in sand in the dry desert climate. Gradually graves become larger and deeper and this prevented the natural desiccation of the body and therefore the body decayed. Perhaps this is where the idea of preserving the body of the dead started.
To prevent this decay, the Egyptians started experimenting in the preservation or embalming of the body, as early as the First Dynasty. To ‘embalm’ is to preserve a dead body by treating it with scented oils and spices.
At first the body was only covered with layers of linen soaked with resin, but this is not true embalming and the body was not in the typical mummy-shape of later periods. True mummification only started in the New Kingdom.

The mummification process


Seventy days had to pass from the day of death to the funeral, in order for the body to be properly embalmed. First the brain was removed through the nose with a metal hook and then discarded. The lower organs, except the kidneys, were removed through a slit in the left side of the abdomen. Everything but the heart, ‘the seat of the mind’, was removed from the chest cavity. The internal organs were embalmed and packed in four canopic jars.
The empty body cavity was stuffed with linen bags and the abdominal incision sewn up. The nose was plugged and linen pads or onions inserted under the eyelids. The entire body was then coated with molten resin to close the pores and protect the surface - this was the best method to preserve the body.
The last and final step was the bandaging of the whole body. The necessary amulets, which gave magical power to the deceased and protected him against evil, were included. After this the mummy was placed in its coffin and ready for burial.
Animals were also mummified as they were seen as sacred to certain gods and goddesses. The Egyptians did not worship the animals, but kept them in captivity as divine representatives of their gods. Therefore, these mummified animals were rarely pets.
The first known animal mummies were those of the bulls associated with the cult of Apis of the town of Memphis. Only one sacred bull at a time was kept at Memphis. When it died, it was mummified, and the bull mummy placed in a granite sarcophagus in the Serapeum (underground burial place of the bulls).
Other sacred animals like the baboon and ibis, both sacred to the god Thoth, and the falcon, also received underground cemeteries. Another sacred animal was the crocodile, sacred to the god Sobek. One of the most popular cults was that of the cat, sacred to the goddess Bastet of the town of Bubastis.
The spread of Christianity in the third century CE caused a decline in animal mummification as well as that of human mummification. The reason for mummification, like the writing of hieroglyphs, was then forgotten and remained a mystery until the ancient texts could once again be read in the 19th century.

A mummified bird of prey. The eyes and beak and some feather shafts are visible. (c) Iziko Photo Archive by Carina Beyers.
The shape of the mummified object indicates that it represents a mammal, possibly a cat. Black dots can be seen surrounding the area arround the ears. (c) Iziko Photo Archives by Carina Beyers.