Why did the Egyptians Mummify their Dead?

Why did the Egyptians Mummify their Dead?

Egypt basically made everyone into mummies because they believed you had to be able to recognise your body in the afterlife in order to return to it. They did this in a lot of ways, but one of the later methods was to use this really useful black tarry stuff called bitumen (think black road surfaces). So they’d cover these mummies in bitumen and wrap them up and bury them. (That’s why they’re called ‘mummies’ – because ‘mumia’ is another word for bitumen.)

Fast track about 1000 years to the medieval period, and bitumen, which by the way was a natural antiseptic and was really good at curing various things, was running out. Since it was a natural resource and it just bubbled up out of the earth, there was only so much you could use at a time, so people started getting frustrated and trying to find other sources of bitumen.

They dug up and carved up and sold and ate a lot of Egyptian mummies. People started trading in these things. They were so common that you got mummy sellers on the streets, and it was the done thing up until Victorian times to bring home a mummy if you went travelling in Africa.

The unfortunate thing is, these people didn’t know most other resins that were also used to preserve mummies turned black when exposed to air.

Yeah… they were sometimes just eating mummies for no reason, accidentally. No antiseptic properties at all. But the thing is, people started to think that it wasn’t the bitumen doing these things. They started to think it was the mummies themselves, so they started making knock-off mummies out of criminal corpses and eating them as well.

But the side-effect of this was that mummies were being sold all over the place, and that meant that people were finding uses for them elsewhere. There was one occasion on which the driver of a steam train burnt a load of mummies as fuel in his train, and you got mummies being turned into oil paints. (Spoiler alert – if you see a pre-Raphaelite painting in a museum that has brown in it, it’s probably a dead person.)

On one occasion, a Christian painter (I can’t remember who it was off the top of my head but the story stuck with me) found out about this and got really upset, and he rounded up all of his artist friends and held a funeral with the tubes of brown paint.

And that’s half the reason we are missing a bunch of mummies. Because bitumen.