Life and death

Mummy and its meaning

The recent news that some museums are removing the word ‘mummy’ from the labels in their Egyptian exhibitions prompts us to ask why exactly this term is used at all. Most dictionaries and encyclopaedias agree that ‘mummy’ is derived from the Arabic word Mūmiyā, meaning an embalmed body. Apparently, the same word also means bitumen in Arabic, and the dark colour of many mummies led to the assumption that this substance (a naturally occurring semi-solid form of petroleum) was used by the ancient Egyptians in the mummification process.

This long-held theory was put to the test in 2016 when two chemists and an Egyptologist published a paper in a Royal Society journal ( setting out the results of their mass spectroscopy analyses of 91 materials comprising balms, tissues, and textiles from 39 mummies dating from c.3200 BC to AD 395. This showed no detectable bitumen use before the New Kingdom (c.1550-1070 BC), but bitumen was used in half of the New Kingdom to Late Period mummies, rising to 87% of Ptolemaic/Roman Period mummies. Even so, bitumen was never the main or the sole substance used, and the colour of mummified bodies is largely due to the darkening effects of heat and age on the fats, resins, and waxes known to be used in the embalming process.

Below A workshop discovered near the pyramid of Pharaoh Unas is offering new insights into the embalming process in ancient Egypt.
A workshop discovered near the pyramid of Pharaoh Unas is offering new insights into the embalming process in ancient Egypt. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons, Olaf Tausch

Several reasons are being given for the decision by some museums to ban the word ‘mummy’. Joanne Anderson, Assistant Keeper of Archaeology at the Great North Museum, was quoted in The Times as saying that the term ‘has a colonial past and now often evokes the image of a supernatural creature or monster’, but critics of the decision said that museums were in danger of cutting themselves off from popular culture. As for the reference to the colonial past, simply banning one word does not seem like an adequate response to the accusation that museums all over the world are filled with ancient Egyptian loot.

The British Museum said that it would continue to use the word ‘mummy’, but would use the name of the mummified person wherever this was known to provide more information for visitors. National Museums Scotland said, ‘using the term “mummified person” encourages our visitors to think of the individual rather than an object’.

What did embalmers use?

The discovery in 2016 of an embalmers’ workshop, located near the pyramid of Pharaoh Unas, in Saqqara, south of Cairo, has thrown new light on the various substances used in the embalming process. Dating from the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC), the workshop contained more than 100 ceramic containers filled with the remnants of various substances, some with names and instructions for their use.

In an article in Nature (, the authors report on the results of their biomolecular analyses of the remnants of 31 of these vessels. This showed that embalmers had an advanced understanding of the anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties of the substances they used, including beeswax, tree resins, and plant oils. Some substances were used for specific body parts: a pot containing Pistacia resin and castor oil was labelled ‘to put on his head’.

Insights have also been gained into two substances named in ancient texts: antiu and sefet have been translated as ‘myrrh’ and ‘sacred oil’ in the past, but antiu is now known to consist of a mixture of cedar and juniper/cypress oil and animal fat, and sefet is an unguent scented with a variety of different plant-based substances.

The majority of the ingredients used at the Saqqara workshop were imported – many of them from a considerable distance. The bitumen probably originated from the Dead Sea. Pistacia trees, olive trees, cedar, juniper, and cypress are absent from Egypt, and the resins and oils derived from these were imported from different locations in the Mediterranean basin, most probably from the Levant. Some of the resins could only have come from distant rainforests in Africa and Asia – all of which points to the Egyptian embalming industry as ‘a driver toward early globalisation and global trade’. Having travelled so far, such ingredients were probably expensive. The 70-day embalming process, which involved many rituals and prayers, was thus typically available only to the elite of ancient Egypt.

Calculating generational intervals

Intuitively one might have guessed that our ancestors got pregnant and gave birth pretty soon after puberty, given the absence of reliable methods of birth control, but evolutionary biologists at Indiana University have estimated that the average age of conception over the past 250,000 years is 23.2 years, suggesting an element of deliberation and planning in the decision to start a family.

The figure is based on measuring the genetic ‘mutations’, or DNA replication differences between parent and offspring. These differ between male and female parents, and multiply the older the parents are at the age of conception. Published in Science Advances (, the study suggests that fathers were consistently older (30.7 years) than mothers (23.2 years) at the age of conception, but that the age gap has shrunk over the last 5,000 years because mothers are having children at a later age. Over the last 100 generations, the average maternal age has increased to 26.4 years, while Europe now has the highest generational interval at an average of 30 years.

A healthy diet

Archaeologists studying the contents of the drainage system beneath the Colosseum have discovered that, while Roman audiences watched the cruel and inhumane spectacle of people and animals being slaughtered, they snacked on the kind of healthy foods that modern nutritionists recommend for a long and healthy life. Mixed in with the remains of the lions, dogs, and bears that had probably met their end in the arena, numerous seeds were found from figs, grapes, and melons, as well as olive stones and the shells of nuts. Federica Rinaldi, the Colosseum’s lead archaeologist, also mentioned finding the remains of small dogs, chickens, and pigs, but she did not say whether these might be food remains or something else.

right Archaeological investigations into the drainage system below the Colosseum have revealed some of the snacks eaten by Roman spectators.
Archaeological investigations into the drainage system below the Colosseum have revealed some of the snacks eaten by Roman spectators. IMAGE: Sonse

The remains were found during research using ‘wire-guided robots’ intended to map the Colosseum’s hydraulics systems, which were used not only to carry waste away but also to flood the arena to produce water-based spectacles, including reconstructions of Roman naval victories.

The problem of books

A sobering message for those of us who have very large collections of books and journals was published in Der Spiegel recently, in a report concerning a retired mining engineer whose collection of 70,000 volumes has been spurned by charity shops and has failed to find a buyer even at bargain price – one dealer is said to have offered €7,000 and then pulled out. The collection was amassed by Bruno Schröder, whose small detached house in Mettingen, near Osnabrück in north-west Germany, was crammed with books of every genre. By comparison, the Italian writer Umberto Eco, described in his Guardian obituary as ‘a polymath of towering cleverness’, whose novels ‘occasionally had the look and feel of encyclopaedias’ accumulated a mere 30,000 volumes, which he kept in an old hotel converted into a private library. Schröder’s executors are now faced with having to recycle the books: Der Spiegel said that the second-hand market is saturated with old volumes and charity shops do not have the storage space for more.

On the other hand, volunteers at the Oxfam bookshop in Tavistock, in Devon, UK, were more than happy when one of their loyal customers bequeathed his antiquarian library to them in 2021. The proceeds from the sale of the 2,300 books raised £40,000 – equivalent to the shop’s entire annual profit.

Andres Nurmela had visited the shop every Tuesday for ten years, travelling to Tavistock from his home in Okehampton by bus. He was particularly interested in ornately bound volumes from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of his books sold for more than £1,000, including a copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management from 1866. Most of the collection went to a single buyer who wants to remain anonymous, proving that there is still hope that those giant book collections that many of us are sitting on will not end up in a skip when we pass on.