How mummies are made

  • Egyptian mummy and its X-ray at the National Museum of Natural History (Chip Clark / Smithsonian)
    How mummies are made

    The most familiar mummies are the Egyptians buried in elaborate tombs and surrounded with treasures to escort them into the afterlife.

    But not all mummies were Egyptian. Or even of the ruling class.

    Mummies have been found around the world, in circumstances ranging from honored leaders to unfortunate victims.

    What makes a mummy is its resistance to natural decay. Mummies are bodies. They have been preserved for long periods of time, either because people prepared them to last or because natural conditions caused accidental preservation.

    Each mummy is a time capsule. It speaks to us from the past.

    Anthropologists who study mummies gather data from the skeleton as well as the clothing, jewelry, coffin or other accessories.

    These artifacts provide cultural context that might reveal how the person lived and died.

    These days, scientists try to peer inside mummies without destroying the linen strips or other materials wrapping the body or the body itself. X-rays are used to see the skeletal structure. CT Scans can show soft tissues in three dimensions.

    Critical thinking challenge: What can mummies tell us about the past?