How that *one* thing we all ‘know’ about Egyptian Mummies might be wrong

Ancient Egypt: land of pyramids, animal-headed gods, pharaohs’ curses, and mummies. It’s fair to say that, perhaps out of any civilisation in history, it’s Egypt that mesmerises us the most. And it’s possibly mummies and mummification which hold the greatest sway over our fascination. The Egyptian belief that preserving the dead body guaranteed eternal life for the deceased’s soul ensured an intricate process of evisceration and embalming. And what’s the one fact about mummification that everyone, from child to adult, can recite with either glee or disgust?

“They pulled the brain out with a hook”

Canopic jars. From left: Qebehsenuef (intestines), Imsety (liver), Hapi (lungs) and Duametef (stomach).

Certain organs would be stored in canopic jars each with a head for a lid. There was Hapi, the baboon-headed god associated with the North whose jar held the lungs. Duametef, the jackal-headed god associated with the East whose jar held the stomach. Qebehsenuef, the falcon-headed god of the West whose jar held the intestines. And Imsety, the god who looked like a human and was associated with the South whose jar held the liver.

But not the brain. No, that was hooked out and thrown away. That’s a fact. The one thing we all know about mummification. Except it might be wrong.

Sculpture of Herodotus in the porch of the Stoa of Attalos building at the Ancient Agora of Athens. Attica region, Greece.

Herodotus (c484 BC — c425 BC) was an Ancient Greek known as the ‘Father of History’. In circa 425BC he travelled to Egypt and documented what he saw there. It is from his Book II of History that we get the following entry regarding the Ancient Egyptian process of mummification:

“They take first a crooked piece of iron, and with it draw out the brain through the nostrils, thus getting rid of a portion, while the skull is cleared of the rest by rinsing with drugs”

Attempts to recreate the mummification process as described by Herodotus suggested that the brain could not be removed using a hook. Then in 2008 CT imaging and then endoscopy of a mummy found an eight centimetre wooden tube had been left inside the skull. This suggested that, rather than hooking the brain out through the nose, the brain was liquified first (maybe using a hook) before the body was laid on its front (prone) and the tube was used to allow the brain to drain out via gravity.

CT scans of a 2,400-year-old female mummy revealed a tubular object embedded in its skull between the brain’s left parietal bone and the resin filled back of the skull. Image copyright RSNA RadioGraphics)
The object, which measures 3 inches (8 cm) in length, was cut off from resin that it had gotten stuck to. It was left in the skull by the embalmers by accident, possibly because it broke off. (Image credit: Photo copyright RSNA RadioGraphics )

Of course. it might well be that different areas of Ancient Egypt used different methods of mummification. It might also be that status and wealth affected how your body was preserved. But this find offers a snapshot that questions what every schoolboy and schoolgirl remembers about Ancient Egypt and mummies.

Maybe they didn’t hook the brain out but used a straw.

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