Animal Mummies via British museum,

What The Heck is a Mummy, Anyway?!

Over the past week, there have been a lot of articles and stories about mummies being found, preserved, etc., and I’ve been doing my best to post and share the good ones. Every now and then I lose my mind and read the comments associated with those articles. This time, though, something good is coming from it.
As I was reading the articles, I realized that lots of people don’t actually know what a mummy is and how vast the practice is. I Here are some of the comments I’ve read:
“These can’t be called mummies. Mummies are made by human effort when dead are embalmed.”
“These are fossil bodies!”
“If not Egypt , don’t confused the readers by the very name ‘mummies’.Search for a new ‘proper noun'”
There were a lot more, but the sentiments were the same- none of it true. It’s been a while, but I’m going to put back on my ‘mummy expert’ hat, and walk you through some information about the magical world of mummies!
So, what is a mummy?
A mummy is a deceased human or animal whose human skin and organs have been preserved by either intentional or accidental exposure to chemicals, extreme cold, very low humidity, or lack of air, so that the recovered body does not decay further if kept in cool and dry conditions.
This means that mummies can be deliberate or accidental. It also means that mummies are not specific to the burial practices of ancient Egypt. In fact, one of the oldest mummy in the world is the Detmold child from Peru. The child is about 6,500 years old, which is about 3000 years older than King Tut, and some pyramids.
So, if mummies encompass such a broad spectrum, why do we call them ‘mummies’ and how come we associate them with Egypt?
That’s a great question! Well, let’s first consider the language that we use to discuss mummies. The word ‘mummy’ comes to us from ‘mumia’. Mumia was a key ingredient for the substance that the Egyptians used to preserve the bodies. It was sticky and brown, but it was also used throughout Northern African and the Mediterranean for many other things.
Media has a huge affect on how we understand the world. Think about all the mummy movies, cartoons, books, etc., that you’ve seen. Where are the mummies from? If I was a betting woman, I’m pretty sure the odds favor that you just thought about Egypt, without hesitation. The term ‘mummy’ is definitely associated with Egypt, but not all mummies are Egyptian.
Essentially, we use the term ‘mummy’ as a blanket term to describe a process of preservation. It is does not mean only one type of body preservation in a singular geographic area.
Here are a couple of mummies that I got to meet when I was at the Franklin Institute as a ‘mummy expert’ for the Mummies of the World exhibit:
In the 18th century northern Hungary town of Vác, there was a tuberculosis epidemic that was responsible for many deaths. About 260 residents were buried in a vault and long forgotten. In 1994, a worker was doing some construction when the vault wall collapsed, revealing the crypt. “The cool air, low moisture and the bacteria- and fungi-killing pine oil from their wood coffins combined to create ideal natural mummification conditions”(
Ultimately, the mummies were transferred to the Natural History Museum of Hungary so that they could tell their story.

You’ll notice that his feet are tied together.  This was thought to keep the soul from returning to the body. The soul was meant to float to heaven.

Baby, Johannes Orlovits. Image via American Exhibitions, Inc
Baby, Johannes Orlovits. Image via American Exhibitions, Inc

‘The Detmold Child’  is a Peruvian child mummy that dates to 4504-4457 BC. He child was born over 3,000 years BEFORE King Tut, was naturally mummified in the dry desert air. This was a common practice in the area. The people utilized the environment as a central component to burial practices.

CT scans show a heart defect and a pulmonary infection.  This is a condition that could be corrected today, but may have lead to the child’s death.

Detmold Child. Image via Getty Images
Detmold Child. Image via Getty Images

A mummy is simply a dead body that has much of its soft tissue preserved, either deliberately or accidentally. A mummy can be human or animal, and can come from anywhere in the world.
Here is an additional resource that has tons more information on mummies, what they can show us, how they are studied, created, etc.

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