Mummies at the museum

On our trip to London (in 2015) I took my children to visit the British Museum, one of my favourite places. My daughter who was studying ancient history at school wanted to visit the Egyptian rooms. So we headed to Rooms 62 and 63 dedicated to Egyptian death and afterlife to look at the mummies.

From about 2700 BC to AD 400 the ancient Egyptians created a whole culture revolving around their belief in the afterlife. Central to this belief was their creation of mummies to preserve the bodies of the dead so that the spirits could enter and survive in the afterlife.

The British Museum owns more than a hundred mummies although not all of them are on display. The museum obviously looks after these valuable and irreplaceable artefacts (not forgetting that they are the remains of once living people).

Mummies are very fragile things and deteriorate rapidly once exposed to humidity and temperature changes. Thousands have been lost. In the 18th century the powdered flesh and bone was swallowed as medicine and in the 19th century public unwrappings of mummies became popular.

Today, researchers use medical CT scanners to investigate the mummies. These new techniques have allowed researchers to research the remains without non-destructively.

But how did mummies get their name? There has been much bad humour deliberately confusing mummies with mothers but with no surprise the word comes from a completely different source. Mummy was first used in English in the 14th Century to describe the medicine made from them.

Mummy was a simplification of the Medieval Latin word, mumia, which derived from the Arabic mumiyah meaning embalmed body. But ultimately the word is derived from the Persian mumiya for the hard, resinous mineral pitch (a variety of tar or asphalt) found originally in the Middle East which was thought to be used in the preservation of the bodies.