Have you heard the story of the frail old man who emerged from a university lavatory with wasp nests in his skull? He couldn’t ask who had led him there because someone had stolen his jaw. He wouldn’t stand up for himself because he had lost his backbone. He didn’t wave for help because parts of both of his arms had gone missing. He couldn’t even point an accusing finger—those bones were lying against his left foot. If you are waiting for a punch line, don’t. I assure you this is no joke. I witnessed this firsthand. In fact, I blame myself for all of it. I was his protector, his bodyguard, on duty for all of eternity.
Full disclosure: You might call me a coffin. I was made of wood more than 2,000 years ago. I come from Kemet, the land you know as Egypt. I exist for one purpose, timeless and sacred: to protect my precious cargo from ravages of death in all its forms.
You probably refer to my consignment as a mummy, but where I came from, we called a body blessed with the rites that prepared it for the afterlife by the title sah. Your modern word, I must point out, comes from a medieval misunderstanding of the Arabic word mumiyah, a kind of bitumen that was used at that time in preparing bodies for burial. Calling my charge “a mummy” is like calling the remains of your uncle “an ointment.” It’s just not proper. But I suppose it is too late to correct the error. Mummy it must be, though please, use that term with respect.
In my time everyone in Kemet aspired to be a so-called mummy, with the five essential attributes of a living person: Ren, or birth name; Ib, or heart/soul; Sheut, or shadow; Ba, or personality; and Ka, or life force. Today, many of you tend to think of yourselves less fully—as just a body and a soul, of which only the latter endures. For my makers, having no body made somebody “nobody” in the truest sense. Thus they placed great care in preserving a person’s physical being for perpetual use by entrusting the body to the hands of priestly embalmers whose work might make you squeamish. But they were not the ghouls of your Hollywood films. No, their ministrations were necessary to sustain a life to be lived again.
It’s important to know what they did, because I was made to safeguard their work. They started with an obsidian blade to slit the left abdominal flank of the deceased to remove and cleanse the viscera. Reciting sacred incantations, they temporarily packed the body with aromatic agents and began the essential process of desiccation using natron, a natural preservative akin to a mixture of salt and baking soda. The liquids the body requires for one stage of life turn out to be anathema to the next.
The heart held special significance because it seemed to be the wellspring of intelligence and emotion. It—not the brain—mirrored the moods of a person, beating rapidly if aroused or agitated and slowly when calm. This is why the embalmers normally left the heart in place so it might guide the deceased. Since the heart embodied the behavior of a person, it also had to be weighed in the afterlife to determine its worthiness. This ritual judgment figures prominently in the Book of the Dead, a funerary text compiled around 1550 bce. In it, the jackal-headed god of embalming, Anubis, places the heart on a scale opposite a feather of the deity Ma`at, symbolizing truth and justice. In the presence of Osiris, the god of resurrection and the underworld, any heart heavy with evil fell into the maw of Ammit the Devourer—a frightening composite of crocodile, hippopotamus, leopard and lion—whose meal rendered the deceased a lost, tormented nonentity. For the righteous, whose hearts are light, the akh, or resurrected self, found welcome in the great Hall of Osiris.
You might be surprised at the one item that failed to travel along with the akh to eternity: the brain. It was considered nonessential baggage because the embalmers could not find a way to extract it intact. It also decomposed too rapidly to save. During the embalming process, priests usually inserted a hooked probe through the ethmoid bone, in the nasal cavity, that could whisk the brain into a slurry, thus draining it out through the nostrils. They partially filled the cleansed cranium with a perfumed resin that often solidified into a dark glassy mass.
Always rushed by the hot sun, embalmers fought back not only with natron but incense and unguents, too, including palm wine, juniper oil, myrrh, cedar oil, cinnamon and beeswax. Toward the end of the 10-week ritual, the hollowed abdomen received a fresh packing of resin-soaked linen. Embalmers then wrapped the body in clean linen bandages and adorned it with panels of painted cartonnage, a pliable material that resembles your modern papier-mâché. The vibrant decorations on the body consigned to my care included a gilded pectoral with the kneeling figure of Nut, the winged goddess of the sky, and a colorful apron draped over the legs.
The skills of these embalmers, however, were not enough. My own makers were essential too. Protective magic that rallies benevolent gods against evil forces must always surround the charges in our care. That is why I am much more than a mere “coffin” or burial box: I, too, am as alive as the man inside me. That is why I take my shape with an idealized human face, framed by a painted black wig that drapes behind my ears and down over my chest. This matches the black ceremonial beard that gives me a mature and virile aspect. Painted on my thin layer of plaster are expressive dark eyes, ever wide and watchful. A broad floral collar in sweeping bands of color and intricate design ornament my body. Representing the god Horus, paintings of a head of a falcon wearing a sun disk top each side of the collar. As the devoted son of Osiris and enemy of Seth, Horus played an important role in the rituals of mummification. At either side of my painted collar appear figures of Isis, mother of Horus, and Nephthys, his aunt. These goddesses, sisters of Osiris and Seth, caress a totem of Osiris. In another vignette below the pairs, Anubis makes an offering.
Beneath my collar, as on the cartonnage, the goddess Nut spreads her protective wings across me. Her hands hold aloft two feathers of Ma`at. Under each wing stretch panels depicting the four sons of Horus, guardians of the internal organs removed from the body in my care: Imsety for the liver; Qubehsenuf for the intestines; Hapi for the lungs; and Duamutef for the stomach. Beneath them kneel more figures of Isis and Nephthys. At my feet two facing jackals lie in their shrines. Along both of my upper flanks, lined up behind images of the watchful lion-god Aker, 11 seated protectors wield knives against any approaching danger. On my base a large, painted shen ring signifies eternity. My bottom half is shallower than the lid, to which it connects securely using eight mortise-and-tenon joints with locking pegs. Long, scaly serpents slither along white bands on each of my sides. All of these are not just decorations. They are what stand between my charge and utter destruction.
Ankh-Hap journeyed across an ocean we did not fully comprehend to a “Wild West” we could not have imagined: The us during your 19th century. We were not alone.
No small part of my job is to preserve also his name: Ankh-Hap it was, and it appears in the upper left register of the prominent hieroglyphic prayer painted on my lid. He was born of his mother, Ma`at Djehuty, and his name means “the Apis bull lives.” Beautiful to say, is it not? It is a name redolent of piety, much as you might name someone Theodore or Abdullah. Apis was an oracular god who was incarnate in the body of a black-and-white bull tended by priests in Memphis. Throughout much of pharaonic history, Apis bulls were venerated in a long succession of chosen calves, each of whose remains were mummified at the end of its reign.
In my hieroglyphic text, I call upon many gods to sustain my charge with essential provisions including bread, beer, meat, wine, milk, incense, linen and oil. Unlike your ideas about the futility of wordly gains, the Egyptians believed that one could—indeed, must—take all of it to the next world, or have it delivered by agreeable gods.
I only wish that I could have done my job better. I admit I have not always kept Ankh-Hap safely inside me. Try as I may, I have not always marshalled effectively all the protective deities mentioned or pictured on my lid. May Osiris, Isis and Aker take pity on my scars of battle. I have lost my ceremonial beard to the greedy hand of some human thief. The tip of my nose has broken away. I have suffered from water damage, one of the two greatest dreads of the Egyptian burial industry—the other being fire—and yes, I bear evidence of smoke damage as well. I have been stabbed with modern metal tacks, stood up in classrooms, stored in strange places, and I have been stuffed with indignities like wads of a modern papyrus called newspaper.
But poor Ankh-Hap suffered far more. This is what happened.
“Going west” with the setting sun used to be an Egyptian way of describing death, but Ankh-Hap journeyed across an ocean we did not fully comprehend to a “Wild West” we could not have imagined: The us during your 19th century. We were not alone. He and I were among at least 1,000 others who endured a veritable mummy migration. Ours was a diaspora fraught with its own dangers: Many of us were opened, our charges unwrapped and even dissected for public entertainment. Others were ground into medicine, and jars of mumiya crowded the shelves of apothecaries, marketed to cure everything from coughing, cramps, nausea and diarrhea to paralysis and poisoning.
Others pulverized mummies into paints for artists, particularly to produce a once-fashionable pigment called Mummy Brown. You can see the remains of many ground-up Egyptians brushed onto canvases that hang today in the world’s finest art galleries.
What you might admire, I mourn. Every one of those paintings frames an indictment of some coffin that failed its duty. Many of us do fail, of course. That is why you find more empty coffins than mummies in modern museums. At my present home, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, for example, I am surrounded by the envy of coffins bereft of their purpose. But I have a secret they do not know: They assume I protect Ankh-Hap inside me, but my story is not that simple.
I confessed this to a tribunal called the Houston Mummy Research Program that began investigating my case some 32 years ago. Its members practice rituals they call research and conservation, which I despised at first when they took my charge away and seemed to rebury him nearby in a new kind of coffin at the University of Houston. It turned out it was only for a few days, yet I felt upstaged by this futuristic casket called a computerized tomography (ct) scanner. It tapped into energies at least as mystical as mine. At the time only a few other mummies had ever been entombed in one of these contraptions, which have the unearthly ability to peer into all that lies hidden within the bandages and bones. This omniscience disclosed that the person I carried had died in his late 30s or early 40s; he stood at 163 centimeters, with signs of moderate arthritic degeneration. As a child he had suffered from anemia. On the embalming slab, after his brain had been removed through his nostrils, his head had tilted slightly to the left as the resin hardened inside it.
When separating the remains of my charge from me for the ct ritual, the tribunal uncovered more of my secrets.
Then came some truly shocking revelations as this ct coffin exposed my failures. I shuddered when the tribunal learned that much of the skeleton of the body I was protecting was missing or displaced within his own wrappings. Except for a lone piece of pelvis and some toes, the lower part of his body appeared intact. Everything else, from the lower thoracic vertebrae upward, was a mangled mess. Only a severed spine, a few separately wrapped ribs, a piece of a scapula, a left humerus and only the right ulna and radius remained. He had two fake hands fashioned from cloth, but also parts of both real hands. Within the cranium, the scan revealed the horrific breach of my security that I spoke of earlier: adobe-style nests built years earlier in his skull by mud wasps.
The scan also revealed seven wooden slats, cut from a tree in the spruce family, that were internally buttressing the body. These braces run down the arms and legs and along what is left of the spine. This discovery stunned the tribunal. Were they looking at the victim of an ancient crocodile attack? Had tomb raiders in search of amulets defiled and ripped apart this body before someone else rewrapped and reburied him? Alternatively, was this evidence of a more recent crime perpetrated by profiteers who literally spruced him up for show and sale?
To help the tribunal solve the mystery, I volunteered small samples from one of the wooden poles connecting the head to the body, from the cloth that separately wrapped some of the displaced bones, and from a small sliver of my wooden flesh. (I refused them any samples from the body itself.) The sacrificed bits of wood and cloth then participated in a ceremony called radiocarbon dating. As a result, the tribunal found that I was constructed, at least in part, from wood that had been felled sometime between 1210 and 890 bce—many centuries before the demise of my charge!
The cloth wrapped around a few detached ribs proved to be younger, about 60 ce to 580 ce. The wooden brace turned out to be recent, sawn between 1560 and 1840 ce. The tribunal determined that the original burial of Ankh-Hap, based on my design, probably took place between 300 and 30 bce, during the Ptolemaic period and using very old, recycled wood for my construction. Ankh-Hap’s body may have been vandalized and restored in Roman times, or perhaps displaced by an unknown usurper, but that is a secret I choose not yet to share. I cannot hide the fact, however, that the body of Ankh-Hap—or his replacement—fell upon harder times when it was internally rigged with wooden braces just a few centuries ago.
When separating the remains of my charge from me for the ct ritual, members of the tribunal uncovered more of my secrets. A recent dossier had lain hidden for nearly a century beneath the body. This included an American Express mailing label dated May 12, 1914, addressed to Ward’s Natural Scientific Establishment in Rochester, New York. Crumpled newspapers were also found, all dated between March 25 and May 29, 1914, most of them issues of the Rochester Herald. This evidence placed me at Ward’s on the eve of World War i. The tribunal wondered what I was doing there.
That I will tell you. Henry Augustus Ward founded Ward’s Natural Scientific Establishment in 1862 as a supplier of minerals and artifacts to schools and museums. He personally collected specimens from Egyptian tombs, including “thousands of crocodile-mummies, of all sizes,” he exported “to fill museums and other institutions,” wrote Elbert Eli Farman, an American consul general to Egypt, in his memoirs.
Ward was there in the land of the pharaohs, in fact, collecting materials to sell at a time when mummies were like money waiting to be withdrawn from the banks of the Nile. They appeared in circus sideshows, society fêtes and storefront windows. Some were bought outright, some were rented by the day, and others were cobbled together into “Franken-mummies.” A speculator could possess a passable mummy by spending $78 (about $1,872 today) for body parts at Ward’s plus twice that amount for a coffin like me.
The tribunal knew that Mark Francis, a professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University, was a customer of Ward’s and that Francis had acquired me early in the 20th century. He propped me at the back of his lecture hall and let locals imagine all manner of nonsense: We were alleged to have emigrated in 1891 from the celebrated Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt, where royals of the New Kingdom period were buried; my charge was erroneously labeled a tax collector for Ramses ii.
In 1921 the sci-fi–sounding name ANH-HR-H3CPJ was attached to my charge, whereupon freshmen were required to recite it whenever asked, “Who is the oldest man on campus?” Souvenir hunters chipped at me and plucked at the mummy until 1937, when we both were moved into a university museum. I thought we were safe inside a glass case, but then someone removed us and committed us to our most humiliating quarters: the men’s restroom in an old storage building. When we finally emerged, my charge’s jaw was already gone and his toes displaced. It was there that a hole in his face had allowed the mud wasps access to his dry, shady cranium.
In 1970 Texas A&M took pity on us and shipped our tattered remains to a properly curated home in the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Now, crowds of respectful well-wishers come to watch my silent vigil over the remains of somebody—or some bodies—still inside my wooden fortress. I suppose it really should not matter if I harbor Ankh-Hap or not, so long as I keep doing my best to protect some vestige of my beloved Kemet. Afterlife is good here. May Osiris, Isis and Aker bless my task eternal.